Perspectives from the *other side* on Software, Management and Life

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

iPhone and market creation

So its old news now, but I got mine! Or was that a month ago, time does fly when you're having fun!

An iphone is no engineering revolution, the technologies used in it were not founded by Apple, they've existed prior to the iphone coming out. What apple was able to do was think out side the box and create something that created a market for its own, or how my business partner lovingly refers to his recently read book 'blue ocean strategy'. No sales person at nokia (the current king of cell phones) was screaming for such a device, or if he was then it wasnt loud enough.
Nokia's high-end phones are still clumpy compared to the iphone and even the newer android based HTC phones. This reminds me of a book I once read called 'the innovators dilemma'




From being a fan of nokia, I've gone to writing them off. And it does make me wonder how being part of a mid size software firm, we need to be thinking outside the box. Pushing all sacred limits. I'll post more on this later


Friday, July 10, 2009

In pursuit of perfection


Why do some men go the extra mile and make sure their work is picture perfect? Thats a question thats kept me from sleeping tonight as I write this blog laying in bed. The related question being why do other men work as mules, requiring a whipping to complete and just barely makes the mark?

It is obvious that motivation plays a role, but something makes me doubt it as the key role. I've had work done by entrepreneurial mechanics (who own their shop, and I assume that should be motivation enough) and have been left pulling my hair at the outcome. Just recently did I get my 5KVa Enpower generator fixed by an independent mechanic/electrician. And its blowing smoke even though I specifically had its engine valve heads replaced. All that was required was for the moron to test run the generator and figure that it needs tuning, fixing, whatever but alas I ask too much of a mere mortal!

Sidenote: be warned, Enpower is the worst generator company out there ...if hell is hot and humid, its because AC's there dont have electricity as Enpower's probably provided the generators!

Or is it training? Can training be the differentiator between beauty and ugliness. Again, I had the sad experience of getting an AC installed by a crew that I am certain had training and plenty of experience. What I'm left seeing in shock is an AC thats tilted (the split's bracket was drilled in at an angle!). The electric wire crawls like a snake across the wall and black tape patches two wire pieces to increase the length for connecting to the power socket. And yet sadly they had done all the hard work of connecting the pipes and all. If only they had spent 10 minutes to make a clean finish, I'd remember them tonight as angels rather than bums.


So with a sleepy head, I conclude it must be the upbringing and environment! Humans are like chameleons and when surrounded by incompetence, they take it on as the gold standard. But when surrounded by excellence, they strive to go further than ever before.


Sunday, June 14, 2009

I'm back!

Its been some time since i last blogged. The last few weeks being hectic would be an understatement. Getting involved in projects in a more tactical manner, children getting sick with flu and all sorts of things I never heard of before, hosting visitors, car accident ..... (and the list goes on).

But life is good and even when things seem to be getting a little too hectic, its important to appreciate the moment. From the Internally Displaced People (IDP's) of Swat/norther areas to those who have lost their jobs in the ongoing recession, its unnerving to know how easily one can be unemployed or underemployed.

That said, I am planning to return back to writing a few blogs every week. Its important!

Sidenote: If you're in the lahore region, you MUST try out Hyperstar (chain of Carrefour) in fortress. They're the first to truly bring out customer care concept in Lahore and possibly Pakistan. I've done a ton of shopping there and have returned a few items as well (which were either not working or not upto quality). It was a breeze doing so, specially in comparison to horribly return policies in chains like Makro etc, you know what I'm talking about!!

Ok, better get going and take my family out (for whats left of the weekend).

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Doing OnLine Business

Recently I had to setup an online business for someone, and I was blown away with how much can be done for free and with minimal technical expertise. The days when an online business setup required USD 30,000 or so are over. Today's the age of USD $20 businesses!

An online business is like any other form of business. There is a service or good thats sold, and customers that line up to consume them. For the brick and mortar business, the sayings goes "location, location and location" on the ability for it to be successful. Thats because most goods that are even half good can be sold if there are enough customers in the shop.

Similarly for web based business, the second step (I havent mentioned the first step yet, so dont worry) is community building. Entrepreneurs do this through a number of ways, which include:
1. Advertising their website over standard marketting mediums ie Print, TV, Billboards etc
2. SEO - search engine optimization. Trying to get google to list your website on the first page when a relevant search is done
3. Gureilla Marketting - Hiring a bunch of interns to spam the net with subtle messages that get users on other, but related sites, to come over to your site
4. Site kickstarting - hiring editors to post messages and make the site look active so as not to scare your first few customers from an empty looking shop!
5. Advertising using google adwords, facebook ads etc

Walking backwards, the first step is about getting a web presence. This is whats gotten me excited today:

1. Purchase a domain thats easy to remember and spell. GoDaddy sells domain for only $9.95
2. Second step, go to google apps and signup
3. Create your email address for the purchased domain using google apps. Gives a professional look to have a domain based email used across the site rather than one from gmail or hotmail.
4. Create a free webpage using google apps sites. The page is very basic, but sufficient to get a decent landing page for sending out feelers on whats about to come. Be careful not to reveal your "secret plans" to avoid someone from taking the wind out of your sails until you get the actual site up
5. Read the tutorial for drupal and make a decent looking site using plugins and themes. There are a number of hosting sites that do the hosting for USD 10 to USD 15. You should plan on a week to two for this.

I'll keep you posted on what else I learn as I help along on this business setup.

Monday, February 02, 2009

KISS - keep it simple STUPID!

Usability is crucial for any application. Its becomes more so with web applications, since they're targeted for a userbase expected to have below college level education. This is great news for some of us who do have college level education as we can simply browse and not play mind games when we're focused on other matters.

For ages I've been in the enterprise development industry, and boy, are most applications there built to ensure that anyone who uses them needs to first read the big fat(!) manual (RTFM)! This of course is changing as most enterprise users now expect ease of use in the office that they've come to expect using facebook, gmail and yahoo at home.

Recollecting an old memory, I was consulting for a big health insurance firm on their web portal for their customers, and we hired a high flying security expert. I guess the expert wanted to justify his "expert" title, and came up with a list of eight (8) properties a password MUST have. I thought he was crazy, but as is the case with consultants, they do have a reputation to live up to. The health insurance firm played along, again I guess someone wanted to justify the cost of hiring the expert. And even during development of the application, I explicitly put in a hack for my password as I just couldnt remember a password with a number, a character, a capital and it being 9 letters long along with a number of other irritating requirements. And oh yes, if you forgot your password, the new one was mailed to you - No, not email, snail mail!!

I was glad I didnt have to log into that portal after I was done developing it, and truly feel sorry for its customers. But a few months ago, the password over-engineering zeal came back to bite me. It wasnt some web banking application, it was ..... delicious !!! Yahoo has been the forerunner in usability, but I guess after their acquisition of delicious, they just couldnt beat enough sense into them.

Here are two screen shots that explain everything.



The above given screen shot shows the crazy password rules for delicious. What were they thinking!! All my URL's are public anyway, its not as if a compromise of my account will suddenly leave me penniless or open them up for liabilities.

The next screen shot has its own humor:


See where is says "keep me signed in for 2 weeks". Hello ...I dont work for NSA, FBI or CIA. I want to remain logged in for ever and ever and ever. If I ever throw away my laptop, I'll format the drive so please keep me loggggeeeeddd in!

Enough of a rant, I've taken action. Moved over to twine, at least their password policy is good. Lets see how their features are. I'm going to miss delicious in the end, if it wasnt for some security wannabe jerk because of whom I had to click on the forgot password after every 2 weeks, I'd still be a user!

Monday, January 19, 2009

For Humility




I recently came across the following blog post: http://jcs.biologists.org/cgi/content/full/121/11/1771, which had the following concluding paragraph:
"Focusing on important questions puts us in the awkward position of being ignorant. One of the beautiful things about science is that it allows us to bumble along, getting it wrong time after time, and feel perfectly fine as long as we learn something each time. No doubt, this can be difficult for students who are accustomed to getting the answers right. No doubt, reasonable levels of confidence and emotional resilience help, but I think scientific education might do more to ease what is a very big transition: from learning what other people once discovered to making your own discoveries. The more comfortable we become with being stupid, the deeper we will wade into the unknown and the more likely we are to make big discoveries."

To me the importance of being humble just cannot be overstated, to understand that at no point in our lives do we stop learning, implying that at no point in our lives are we the "know all".

A personel story of mine relates to this, that being that once I found myself working with bodyshop contractors in the US during the 2000 dot com boom. These guys were real knuckleheads ...the kind of developers who need guidance in writing a simple regular expression parser etc. Working with them had the strange effect on me where I became extremely overconfident. There was no problem I thought I couldnt do and no issue where I could ever be wrong. I learnt the least during this phase of my career. Then I jumped boats and joined one of the leading tech firms in the US, and was I in for a surprise. I suddenly found myself surrounded with the best minds in tech, and my confidence completely shattered. And I loved it ...it was liberating to know that there is so much to learn and so much to do.

And that experience keeps me going today too, whereby I have a large body of techy's reporting to me, when most engineers do not argue against my point of view, I know its either because I havent done my job in hiring the best minds or that I've set the wrong precedence for anticipations in such meetings.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Emotional Emails

When I get emotional I can almost feel my brain shutting down (the thinking part of it). Its a pity that strong emotions force me in a primate like state and throw away all the effort the human race spent in its evolution. However, it gives me some comfort to see I'm not the only one who has this issue, and so here's my tip to responding to an email in the morning that gets you all emotional and angry:

Steps to take after reading an extreme email that gets steam coming out of your ears:

1. Cool off before doing anything - walk around if required for a few seconds
2. Re-read assuming you're someone else
3. Write a respond but do NOT send
4. Cool off for another few seconds, walk around etc
5. Read other emails to make sure there isnt a followup to it or another response
6. Reread your draft response. If it doesnt sound too emotional (business communications should be void of there), then hit the send button!

Happy mornings to you!

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Number Juggling


Satyam's in the news for carrying out a whooping 1 BILLION USD fraud, in a company with revenue of approx 2 billion USD ie 50% of the revenue amount now being reported off the cash reserves! Guess who their financial auditors are, none other than PWC!
The problems of financial misreporting are not new, neither in developed or emerging markets. Whats concerning to me is why a CEO was allowed so much power to have reported these numbers without anyone of his VP's stepping up to stop him. Are companies so blind to the CEO's acts that such illegalities are done without fear.

On a personal note, I've always erred towards caution to avoid getting caught up in such misreporting (not that I havent ever fallen trap in one of these though). The golden rule of "if it sounds too good to be true, then its likely not true", the one I like and have been saved from the following scams using this principle:
  1. Investing in the summer home scam - the one where you were shown videos of the high life and asked to invest a few thousand dollars to avail residence in a million dollar home during your summer vacations.
  2. Getting membership to Quixtar/Amway/MLM - they sell dreams to the "business partners", not a compelling business strategy. There is no such thing as a get rich quick scheme, specially when its being sold to a huge number of individuals.
  3. Futures - CMC markets (UK) or others out there that get individuals to invest around 10K USD in futures by leveraging the said amount on price differentials. Yes, the possibility of becoming a millionaire looks to be a reality, but the likelihood of getting a quick loss of your invested amount seems more likely.
  4. You've just won a million billion dollars - calls/voicemails/emails/sms's etc. Need i say more on this!
That said, there are times when an opportunity comes knocking, and a certain risk has to be taken. But all in all, one's brain must assess if real value is being created without breaking laws. (assuming both explicit and the unlegislated rules of ethics). The key being short term artificial gains are easy to make while long term it's nearly impossible to keep the castle standing if its built on quick sand.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Employee Reviews and Grading Medians




I've been reviewing employees using a certain grading system for some time now. I belong to the school of thought that ascribes to "tough love", ie grading systems should be anything but lenient. So for a grading system that rates out 5, the following is the criteria:

  1. (1)Very poor job: Need to be caught sleeping more than once on the job to get this!
  2. (2)Poor job: Not satisfied with the performance
  3. (3)Meets job requirements: Typical grade for a ok job done
  4. (4)Above Average: When there is something really good about how the job was done (expect around 10% of the employee base to be here)
  5. (5)Exceptional: If I somehow hired James Gosling who rewrote the whole corporate strategy! (extra credit - dont expect anyone to be here unless they're a class apart)

So during December's review cycle, I got hit by a thought - why must I always have to argue with employees who claim they've earned a "4" when I'm giving them a "3.5" or so. To me a number like 3.5 is good, but to a majority its poor and they walk away from a review demoralized. Since I've worked in larger organizations where a standard is followed and any issues are to be taken up with HR, I've never thought on this much. But now, working in a smaller organization gives a whole new meaning when I see a majority thats demoralized.

Thought: Should grading be lenient
Advantages
1. Everyone comes out as a winner - We live in a society where every other parent has a "proud parent of an honor student" sticker on their car's bumper (not in Pakistan as yet, but the mindset is the same). Its not possible for all students to have become smart, lowering of the grading system and instilling this thought in the masses is a far more likely cause. Why swim against the tide?
2. Motivated employee base - the purpose of a review is to improve employee productivity IMHO. It requires that we identify the shortcomings and highlight the positives. However if the end grade is considered demeaning we can forget about a motivated and hence a productive employee base (outside of the 10% employees who get 4 or over).
3. Easier time for the grader - we too are human beings and arguing takes out our positive energy. Trying to argue with someone on why its not a low grade but how its a decent grade leaving room for improvements until the next review sometimes feels like a bad hair day!

Cons:
1. Incorrect messaging - It is important for individuals to understand they have shortcomings. A high grade may misguide an employee into a comfort zone where only larger trouble lays ahead, either for the employer or the employee.


I'd love to hear your thoughts on whether my grading system should be changed such that a 5 stands for a very good job rather than exceptional with appropriate adjustments to the other numbers.