Category Archives: Beyond Code

Things beyond programming and mathematics

Screenshot from 2012-12-25 17:36:17

Christmas Trivia

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Google’s Santa Tracker 2012

Santa Claus is possibly more popular among kids than the Lord on his own birthday. When and how did the American version of Santa Claus originate?

The American version of Santa Claus comes from the Dutch legend of Sinterklass. Sinterklass is the dutch version of St. Nicholas, who has the reputation of secretly giving gifts back in the 4th century AD.

The Dutch immigrants brought the concept of Sinterklass to New Amsterdam (modern day New York) in the 17th century. Sinterklass, in his modern version of Santa Claus, initially appeared in the press as “St. A Claus”. In 1809 Washington Irving, possibly one of most famous New Yorker ever, wrote a book titled the “History of New York” under the pseudonym Diedrich Knickerbocker. You can read that book online: Knickerbocker’s History of New York, Complete by Washington Irving. In this book Washington Irving described Santa Claus and concocted the legend that he came on a horseback (and not on a sleigh!) each year on the eve of St. Nicholas.

In 1823, Clement Clarke Moore in a poem titled: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, illustrated Washington Irving’s Santa Claus with additional details that included Santa’s reindeers and his winks and nods. This poem is popularly know as “The Night before Christmas”. Interestingly though Santa himself was an elf as far as this poem goes.

Between 1860 and 1880, Thomas Nast, expanded on these original ideas of Santa Claus and converted him into a fat round character with reindeers, who went every Christmas night giving gifts around the world. His illustration of Santa Claus was published in Harper’s Weekly. A human size and form of Santa Claus as we know of it today, was popularized by Coca Cola in an advertisement in 1931. This advertisement illustration was created by Haddon Sundblom.

Ash Maurya’s Running Lean — go read it now!

I just finished reading Ash Maurya’s Running Lean. Its one of those rare books that has lots of great content packed in only about 200 pages. The book is an easy read and flows like a magazine article or a nicely written blog post. Its a must read for anyone trying to start a business or anyone trying to go work for a startup.

Eric Ries codified the lean startup principles in a book titled: The Lean Startup. Ash Maurya, in Running Lean, takes the next step to translate philosophy to a more tangible set of actionable guidelines.

Practice Oriented Self-Help Guidelines

Running Lean is a self-help book for entrepreneurs. Like most self-help books, it provides a few pointers and guidelines to what must be done to move toward success. In this regard, the book is no different in intent than a self help book about losing weight, making friends, being happy, or becoming rich. Unlike a plethora of self-help concept books though, Ash Maurya focuses on practice and advice that can be applied. He presents a step-by-step process and a formula to enhance your chances. By the time you finish reading this book you have a list of action items to be applied to your own startup.

Many self-help books have the essence in the first 40 pages and the rest of the 200 odd pages that follow are simply continued explanations of this basic idea. Running Lean starts with thought provoking advise on the very first page and continues to remain fresh till the last one.

Know Your Customers & Their Problems

A large number of products are built with a solution in mind. In geek led startups, many of these solutions are purely motivated to satisfy a techie’s itch. I am one such person perhaps! I have been building a lot of things for years because it simply presents a great technology solution. A prime example is a time tracking software I wrote a couple of years back. It is clean and sophisticated in terms of code but I wasn’t able to make a business out of it. On hindsight, I did not invest in learning enough about the customer needs and was a bit confused about its monetization possibilities by the time I was ready to go to market with it. I wanted to sell it to everyday but didn’t sell to anybody and abandoned it prematurely.

I would surely use the lean startup methodology and speak to my potential early adopters first if I had to rebuilt that product today. I would meet these prospects in person and ask them questions with the objective of understanding their requirements.

Knowing your customers and their problems is the most important part in being successful. Steve Blank calls this customer development. His book Four Steps to the Epiphany is another must read for entrepreneurs. Running Lean is a detailed guide to how to reach out to customers and what questions to ask at each phase of your startup lifecycle. Ash Maurya recommends
(a) Problem Interview (to understand the problem and the customer’s needs),
(b) Solution Interview (to validate that your proposed solution solves the customer’s problem), and
(c) MVP Interview (to make sure your minimum viable product addresses the customer’s problem and the customer is willing to pay for it)
as three important times to connect with customers. He generously provides detailed examples from his own startup experience with CloudFire, making the recommendations way more than mere philosophical musings. I wrote a problem interview meeting request email today to one of my prospects, using a format I saw in the book.

‘Maker’ vs ‘Manager’

A techie founder of a startup can be torn between his simultaneous attempts in developing his software (maker role) and meeting his customers (manager role). Running Lean provides some guidance and proposes maintaining a balance between the two roles of a ‘maker’ and a ‘manager’. You must read Paul Graham’s Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule for a valuable viewpoint on conflicts between these roles.

I can completely empathize with Ash Maurya’s schedule of coding during early mornings (when most others are asleep) and talking to customers in the afternoon. However, I am unable to define my own priorities as clearly as I believe he presented it. My current startup is a small setup comprising of my co-founder with management experience, 5 developers, 1 designer and I. I am deeply involved in software release, bug fixes, feature planning, continuous deployment, product definition, and project management. I also spend time talking to potential customers, potential investors, potential hires, and partners. The long list doesn’t end there. I also spend time on miscellaneous other things like accounting, legal compliance, branding, and keeping my team motivated. Outsourcing many of these tasks would be great but is expensive for a bootstrapped startup. Despite reducing waste and staying focused on an MVP, a founder probably needs over 30 hours in a day! Running a startup is a grueling experience and I don’t believe there is an easy way to maintain balance among the multiple roles a founder needs to play.

Don’t be a Feature Pusher

This segues to the most important part of the lean startup methodology. Build a minimum viable product, better known as an MVP. Its very easy to get sucked into a features arms race with yourself. Lean MVP means build less but a good geek or an awesome visionary is often about doing more in less time. You see the disconnect! In my opinion, founders who are not expert makers or super efficient managers ironically do well in this regard. They quickly reconcile with building an MVP because it seems more palpable to them. The uber geeks and the smart managers struggle. Their MVP is often not minimal enough. Silicon Valley especially loves uber geeks and if you are one of those, then there is a decent possibility you may get funded without even a proper plan in your hand. This often can be a curse cause you start building a rather bloated SVP (Supposedly Valuable Product).

Conversion Metrics

The book talks in detail about user life cycle management, from acquisition to referral. This is a topic close to Ash Maurya’s heart and relates to his latest startup, UserCycle, which is trying to address the problems in this space.

Actionable metrics should be at the heart of every business. Vanity metrics are useless. Retention and repeat usage matters.

Early Adopters

All startups in their early stages should care a lot about their early adopters. Most startups are founded with a grand dream of addressing a global problem and reaching out to a diverse set of consumers. In reality though, you should feel very happy if you even get some traction in your neighborhood. The emphasis on building relationship with early adopters is highlighted in this book. Its a very valuable piece of advice.

Don’t Agree with Everything

Running Lean is a very inspiring book and I love Ash Maurya’s style of writing, full of honesty and personal examples. However, I must say that I couldn’t agree with every single part of the book. Lean Startup addresses a lot of issues but it does not consider issues related to
(a) distributed startup teams (they are increasingly getting common now),
(b) skewed skill sets (many startups are founded by geeks only who understand little beyond code!),
(c) acquired tastes (despite over 100 million iPads in the market, a majority of the users are still pretty unclear on why they need it and what problem does it solve),
(d) regulatory influences (VOIP over the years), and
(e) new markets (consumption of local and healthier food).

Its much harder to define the problem/solution fit in these cases.

My Own Failings & What Next?

I spent most of the last year building a really great product, called doaround. It will be launched to the general public soon. We did some things really well and struggled on many counts as well. We did seek consumer feedback from the very beginning but could have been more scientific about it. We built a full featured VP and not an MVP. It took much longer and costed us a lot more.

What Next? The next time I am building a product for What Next Labs (Yes! thats the name of our company) I am running lean.

Special Guest at the NIT PowerConnect

The NIT (National Institute of Technology) Almuni Network in the Silicon Valley organizes a monthly power connect networking event. I am honored to be invited as a special guest to their event this evening. I am not an NIT alumni (I attended St. Stephen’s College, XLRI and Courant, NYU) but do know that NIT (which was formerly known as REC) produces a number of very bright engineers every year. Although, IIT is the big global brand from India which has produced a number of very smart and well-recognized engineers, few know that NIT has a lot of great success stories as well.

I will be leading the conversation on NoSQL and Cloud Computing and would participate in a panel discussion on “Snakes and Ladders – How to climb the corporate Ladder” with a bunch of well-known and respected professionals including Bala Sahejpal (IT Director at Juniper Networks), Paul Chen (Director at PapayaMobile), Dilip Saraf (a career coach), Anand Kamannavar (Applied Ventures) and Biren Gandhi (Ex Studio CTO Zynga). Looking forward to the exciting event this evening. If you are coming to the event then look forward to seeing you there.

5 Technology Application Trends in 2011!

5 technology application trends that I think will be most popular in 2011 are:

  1. Tablets, tablets and tablets: iPad started the fever and its not stopping anytime soon. Newer and smarter tablets of all sizes, form factors and capabilities will emerge. Newer and newer applications for these devices will be available.
  2. Big data will get bigger: More and more big data will become available in the public domain and we will see the emergence of newer and smarter storage and analytics solutions in the space. In other words NoSQL and all tools that help manage big data will boom. Cloud will continue its expansion.
  3. Local will be king: Groupon has show the way but there is a lot more to win! Hyperlocal communities will be the way forward. You will see a lot more startups in the space. If you are an investor, don’t forget to put some money there :)
  4. Social networking shakeout & correction: Every boom meets a correction, Facebook and friends will see some correction as well.
  5. Growth of collaboration: the audio-video segment has been largely a consume only space for a while. Collaborative rich communication and interaction will see some innovative new applications.

Happy New Year!

Coast to Coast: New York to California

Over the last many years I was traveling to California for work and conferences and every time I was there I was very attracted to the entrepreneurial spirit and the love for technology lead innovation in the silicon valley. However, all those years I lived in New York City, a place that probably is among the best places in the world to live in — great diversity, vivacity and vibrancy. So despite all desire I would stay in New York and travel everywhere else required. In the last few weeks though, I finally decided to reverse the structure and decided to move physically to the bay area and travel everywhere else. I am still in the process of the move but you will see me more often in the West Coast now.

From a business standpoint, our venture — Treasury of Ideas — will continue to service clients nationwide and around the globe. We will also continue to host New York centric mentoring sessions and conferences/events, like the Flex Camp Wall Street, the next edition of which is coming soon. In the next few weeks we will post our new office addresses in New York and California. The phone numbers and online addresses remain the same. I will be traveling as always and will be in New York every once a while so will get a chance to connect with old friends in New York. Also, would love to hear from friends and readers in the bay area, so drop me a message when you get a chance!

Purpose Maximization

Humans are not horses and it takes more than rewards to get the best out of them. In fact, more rewards for complex tasks that requires sophisticated algorithmic thinking leads to poor performance. If you are confused by now, then watch this brilliant animated presentation:

Given that human tasks are increasingly getting complex and automated intelligent applications is the direction, we are all headed to, does it mean large rigid corporates are going to get drained out of talent? On the corollary, does it mean those who run for money essentially don’t care about challenging work? If autonomy and mastery are of paramount importance, is being an entrepreneur or a freelancer a career all smart people need to choose? If smart agile enterprises that engage employees as people and get the best out of them is the way to go, then why isn’t everyone already doing it? Are companies scared things could go out of hand?

Last but not the least, if people like to contribute effectively where they have the freedom and can enjoy challenges for no monetary reward, only because it allows for purpose maximization then why don’t we use that same energy beyond open source software and free encyclopedias to solve some of the pesky world problems that have been around for a few generations?

What do you think?

A new year, a new promise!

As we enter 2010, its time again to celebrate a new year and the beginning of a new decade. 10 years into the new century we are still far away from frozen humans in suspended animation that Sir Arthur C Clarke wrote about in 2001: A Space Odyssey and again in 2010: Odyssey Two. However, we are deep in the age of socially networked internet that is helping us replace our real self with our online persona. It is a time where so many are so consumed in online stardom that they have stopped worrying about real people, real relationships and sometimes even real jobs! However, much of the new web also holds some great promise, including great new ways to collectively learn to make better decisions and mingle with like and unlike minds.  Hopefully this mingling will extend beyond playing computer games like halo with strangers around the world to understanding alternative viewpoints and a little less bloodshed due to the age old religion based feuds.

May you all have a great New Year and may you have at least a little more exciting things to do for yourself and the world — more than buying lottery tickets using your mobile phone and tweeting to the world that you finished breakfast! That’s not asking for much or is it :)

On Cultural Differences in Outsourcing

Yakov Fain invited me as a guest to his podcast — “No BS IT” — to speak about cultural differences in outsourcing. Yakov and I tried our bit to explain and understand the cultural aspects of outsourcing to Eastern Europe and India. Listen to the episode and let me know what you think.

Here is the episode — Cultural Differences in Outsourcing.

No BS IT: Cultural Differences in Outsourcing

Insane Advertisement

Have you seen this advertisement? I found this by chance on Ben Nadel‘s website.

 

ColdFusion Advertisement

ColdFusion Advertisement

 

This is by far the most insane piece of advertisement I have seen in a while. Cheeky and nothing but screaming to attract attention! In addition, being nasty and depicting gender bias. Is adobe against women as programmers? Do they believe in discriminating against women?  (Ben Forta clarified that it was Ben Nadel’s creation and had nothing to do with Adobe). He also pointed me to a link where someone from the community responded to this advertisement.

Here is the link : https://blogs.wharton.upenn.edu/staff/rsweger/2008/08/like-omg-i-am-so-not-upgrading.html

Seems just some wacky creativity ! ( mean’t to be humorous and not any serious message really :) ).

Rediscovering Gandhi

Born on October 2, 1869 was a man who proved through his deeds and actions the power of truth, love and non-violence. Celebrated as the father of a nation of over 1 billion people and revered by all as the beacon of non-violence, this man needs to be remembered more for his thoughts than the events that he affected. Textbooks portray him as the person who got India its freedom from the British and put him on the list of the venerable who are titled as “Mahatma”. However, more often than not the essence of his philosophy and how it relates to each one of us in our everyday lives is conveniantly forgotten.

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