Rains Drench the NCL Venture Center Campus

NCL Venture Center Campus, Pune


Growing Children, Growing Parents

Our 3.5 year old boy attends a local Nursery not far from where I live. We’re fortunate that he’s been able to fit right in and that he looks forward to attending. We think it may have something to do with the attention that he gets there, the experienced teachers, the methodology but we can’t be certain.

Earlier this week the school invited us for an open day to share the kids’ work. Parents were asked not to speak to the teachers about how their kids were doing so, but they cornered the teachers anyway. It was eye-opening to see that almost every parent who was there shared the same question, the same anxieties.

As parents we do our best to grow our little boy. We hope that we’re imparting the right values, opening him up to the right experiences and that our contribution will enable him to grow and take life on on his own terms. On one hand, we know that it’s one life and on the other hand, one can’t take parenting too seriously either.

With that backdrop let’s revisit the question – “How is my child doing?” asked every concerned parent, including ourselves. I believe we were really asking “How are we doing as parents?” To every parent, the teacher is the neutral observer who weighs in on the values every child has picked up at home and displays in the classroom. My little guy is a tad unpredictable – he’s won his teacher over and at home we see a very different person.

His teacher shared a tiny insight into how his mind works. He loves to be approached as an adult would. His wish is that everyone around him respect his wishes and not necessarily adhere to them. Whether that is the key to his behavior or otherwise, I can certainly say that I’ve crossed that lines several times.

I get up in the morning and after getting through a few daily rituals, I wake him up to get ready for school. I then change and wash him. I do this daily. Although in theory, this ought to be pretty simple – there are days when I botch this up thoroughly. An explosion of yelling ensues as he gets upset and my better half has to step in to referee the situation. On good days we get through it in a breeze.

As he grows past the three’s, the most engaging activities for me as a parent are the ones we both can enjoy together. While I can’t ride the junior trampoline at the park with him, I certainly can enjoy trading ideas on what we can build together with his blocks. Recalling our quiet sessions assembling blocks evokes how every child feels, peeling away a sense of play, exploration, sharing and more. They renew my confidence that I can play and work with my child.

For a brief moment Parents be children; Children be parents.


Is Outsourcing Right for Startups?

A friend wrote to me and asked me should he outsource or not. Turns out a number of startups confront this question in the early days. Especially if there are concerns with respect to delivering software on time and within estimates. My answer doesn’t vary much and is shared below.
Its unrealistic to expect an outsourcing team to have the same level of ownership and I believe that most conflicts arise out of mismatched expectations. Which is also why startups seldom choose to go down the outsourcing route if they have a choice to put together their own team instead. Writing software is a creative pursuit; its pretty challenging to get precisely what you ask for due to the lossy nature of communication.
I will always recommend putting together the best team over outsourcing. Let’s assume we’re going down the outsourcing route:
Do they want the business – yes? I’ll only recommend an outsourced company if I’ve either worked directly with them, or if a colleague I know well has worked with one. I don’t think an outsourced company will go out of the way to scam you on the project or anything like that as it will make an obvious impact on their ability and reputation to deliver to west coast customers.
Due to the language barrier / discomfort with western professional environments – you might find that when a project begins to fall behind schedule, some engineer will nod his head saying that a crucial task is complete, when in reality it isn’t. This has been known to happen and I don’t believe it is always indicative of malicious intent. Its more to do with our cultural make up. Here in India, professionals try to be over-sincere and don’t know when to say “no”. This attitude leads to icky situations where teams overcommit and under deliver. I don’t intend to sweep it under the carpet; but I can recommend that you need to watch out for this and proactively take steps against it.
Can an outsourced team make the difference between success / failure for a startup company? Success maybe. Failure – definitely not.
What you can do to mitigate some of the problems that can arise,
1. Start small (1 or 2 people) and build 1:1 relationships with the people on your team so that they have the freedom to focus on being productive.
2. Stick to an agile discipline with 2 week or 4 week cycles so that you don’t go astray and can get back on track when you do.
3. Be aware at the code-level as to what is being checked in, why, who, … . Peer code reviews are a great idea if you can get involved at that level. Hook your git repository to send out notifications on every check-in.
4. Keep communication voice-based as far as possible; this way you can bypass the language barrier and create healthy, direct communication lines between you and each member of the team. Try avoiding the tyranny of email if you can.
Over time, you can ease back on some of the above practices.
Finally, it pays to become the CTO for your product. I doubt if junior developers can help point out some of the larger arcs that could actually play a crucial role either in,
1. your product, the technologies used and eventually the ability to deliver on your business goals.
2. your team’s productivity, the tools used internally to help foster collaboration and efficiency.
If on the other hand you don’t have the bandwidth for the above. I’d say put your time and energy into creating clear specs and if stuff does go wrong I’d go back to what I said earlier that it isn’t the outsourced vendor who will determine success / failure of the startup. You always reserve the option to move on. That’s the nature of the relationship.
A side note, I have heard of people having better success with hiring talented freelancers from the odesk / elance crowd. Again this is anecdotal and your mileage can vary … wildly :).

Moonshot Thinking & the film “The Edge of Tomorrow”

I got around to watching the new Tom Cruise sci-fi film “The Edge of Tomorrow” this long weekend. While I will do my best to avoid sharing any spoilers, I certainly enjoyed the movie for its portrayal of a fresh perspective and I’d like to figure out if I can share my thoughts as coherently as the movie itself.

The movie’s basic premise is that the world’s gripped by crisis. It has been overwhelmed by a technologically superior alien species known as the mimic, that wants our planet for itself. Europe has been lost and a press officer Major William Cage (played by Tom Cruise) has been reluctantly drafted to the front lines in a major counter-offensive. Unprepared, he dies on his first day of battle and wakes up to a unique phenomena.

Just like in a video game, every time Cage dies, his death allows him to re-spawn back in time to the point where he joins the other troops a whole day before the battle begins. The rest of the movie is about his desire and discovery of the abilities to win the war for humanity. Without spoilers, here’s what I think a summary of the story ought to be.

We can’t be absolutely prepared in skills, resources or else for any worth-while challenge.
As we take the only active steps we know to face it head on,
we discover that our initial anxieties about the challenge are unfounded.
We try and try again only to lose our way and find our way back in to this game we’ve created.
Eventually, our ability to rise above the challenge transcends odds and circumstances alike.

If by now you haven’t already figured out the metaphor, I believe the movie is alluding to moonshot thinking.

As goals go, the premise is that we’re bad at distinguishing between what’s truly impossible, and what’s hard but only just beyond our current means.

An apt example of this is where the word moonshot comes from, the US Apollo missions to the moon. At the time of the first moon landing, there was no precursor to the moon mission. Peter Thiel referred to the idea of simply ‘reaching the moon’ as the ‘Calculus metaphor‘, arguing that ‘a spaceship can’t ride on probabilistic thinking’.

Fittingly, this past week India managed to reach Mars on its first attempt, a first in itself. There’s more.

Today we’re gripped by an irrational exuberance with respect to the proliferation of personal technology in India. This is the same exuberance as I’d experienced in the past. It’s more certain now that smartphones can bring about technological parity between every Indian, regardless of his demographic and even education. In Android, Google knows it has the best chance to achieve this with what will be the next 300Mn Indians to go online.

Now is the best time to reset what we know and otherwise to welcome this transformation.


What Exactly Does Adequate Attention Mean?

Sourcing good ideas is hard. The challenge manifests when attempting to source ideas from within and even from a slightly larger group of people. In all such cases, optimizing attention along a sensory dimension can help.

First, a few basic ideas. Sensory attention employs the sense organs. Abstract attention on the other hand, is attention that is independent of sensory input. At any given point of time, you’re applying both cognitive processes to various degrees.

When we’re a part of a novel or challenging experience, our abstract attention isn’t a priority. Let’s say you’re getting ready for a presentation. On standing up and presenting out loud to an audience, you’re optimizing on your aural as well as visual attention. In other words, you’re paying attention to a feedback loop that’s not just inside your mind. If on the other hand, you’re putting together slides seated at your desk – you’re engaging the presentation in a more abstract sense.

Here’s the catch. Abstract attention alone isn’t as sustainable, or effective in introducing contextual breakthrough as sensory attention is. Anyone who’s experienced school in India will identify with a scenario where the teacher’s yelling out “pay attention to the blackboard!”

This makes for some simple and odd-sounding solutions possible.

Do you think it’s possible for a brick-building game such as LEGO to foster team and business building? Maybe even change success rates in an educational environment?

LEGO Serious Play (wikipedia) claims all of the above. Teams are encouraged to collaborate and create projected story lines of their business, team or any concept as a 3D LEGO model. As you build it out, you’re paying attention to your hands employing both touch as well as visual attention. In a collaborative environment, you’re also unconsciously reading body language and employing empathy.

Switching contexts, when brainstorming on a startup idea, its easy to disregard an idea as unworkable without actual customer data, or contextual input to show that it’s promising. It’s also easy to overestimate the value of an idea based on what you’ve seen or heard. The challenge with an infant idea is that it’s an abstraction with potentially many inner ideas that could be rearranged for greater effectiveness. What’s needed is resolution before decision. This is certainly an area where increasing sensory attention beyond the average business model framework or story map can play a role in encouraging deeper thought and better decision-making.


Celebrating Minecraft’s Creator

Build what you want! Have you heard that one before?

Minecraft began as an idea in the mind of Markus “Notch” Persson. He released an early version of it in May 2009 after creating it in his spare time from home.  They’ve sold 54 million copies since! In September 2014, Mojang – Minecraft’s current owner sold out to Microsoft for $2Bn.

Minecraft’s a unique story that highlights two promises of our age – the ability for anyone to write software and instantly ship it to users at scale. If you’ve got the ingredients right, the sky is the limit.

The build cycle starts out with toying with several ideas, good and bad. The one that’s interesting is the one that gets built. As the very first user of what’s being built, the creator enjoys the advantage of the shortest possible feedback loop before users were to even get involved.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of thought over this bit of the loop. I’ve come to realize that attempting to give away the responsibility of this bit loses the entire point of the cycle. Communication is inherently lossy! Pleasant, unintended side effects of doing it oneself- keeping in only those features that are absolutely necessary and depriving naysayers altogether.

Sharp build skills have another amplifying side-effect. When you notice a workaround or a gap, you’re less likelier to turn to a lesser solution. Instead, you’re likelier to think “… that’s interesting, I can build that tonight.”

It’s also the only sure way that I know of dropping the many biases we carry. And yes, you’re going to get some ideas that suck.

This is to wish Markus well! His faith in ‘Build what you want’ is inspiring.

 

Build What You Want


How We Lost Microsoft India

It’s rare to experience two very different perceptions around the same central idea, on the same day.

Those of us from Pune will remember that Microsoft India at one point (~ 1998) did consider setting up operations in Pune. This weekend I had two different conversations with colleagues of mine from Pune around Microsoft’s role in our eco-systems.

Both of them were well-educated individuals from different cultural backgrounds. I hope they’ll forgive me for using the content of our conversation here on my blog. But there’s an overarching purpose which our conversations illustrated. I happen to simply be the medium to have spotted the content of both these conversations.

My purpose of relating it here is to encourage thought around what is soil to a farmer?

One of them highlighted how important it was to bring products-led thinking and technology to India’s IT leadership efforts. He said, and I paraphrase – the work in Microsoft India, Hyderabad is hardly the kind that an IIT’ian would aspire to.

Without focusing on the truth or otherwise of this statement let’s move on to the next one.

The other one highlighted how sad it was that Pune lost out to Hyderabad in bringing Microsoft to India. He asked, what is it that we’re missing that Hyderabad has? We have the talent, educational institutions and so on.

In my own journey, I’ve travelled to the United States and studied, worked there in the hope that their culture will influence me enough to give up on any unnecessary habitual ways that I’ve acquired from the culture that I belong to. This is true of an ongoing trend of so many thousand students who make the journey every year.

I’ve also seen first-hand how brilliant migrants from tier-II, tier-III cities aspire for different lives in tier-I and metro cities of India.

For both of these migrants, their journey is essentially the same. Some stay, some don’t.

In order to build a product eco-system with self-belief, we’ll need many, many Satya Nadella’s who can find work to aspire to and in the process, find themselves in Pune. Of those many, perhaps one will build a Microsoft that Pune can call its own. Then both queries will be satisfied.


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