Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The Oakland Files

The move to Oakland has been quite an adventure. It has been about a week since Puneet and I found our way to our slice of heaven in the Bay Area. The journey was long and circuitous, meandering through Hampton Boulevard in Norfolk to Brookside Way in University Place, and we lost and found a number of things along the way. New friendships were forged, relationships were mended, and cherished possessions that had been part of our lives were bid goodbye. Such is the nature of moves: you gain some things and you lose others.

Of the things no longer with me, I do miss my BMW the most. Attachment is hard to rationalize, even harder to manage, especially when the thing in question is no longer with you. I am happy that my prized possession is in the care of someone who will preserve it to the best of their ability. It’s all about finding silver linings in situations, isn’t it…

After a long hiatus, I got on the tennis court last afternoon. The last six or so months in Norfolk, January through the end of June, helped me regain some of the lost fitness during my years at Deloitte. Tennis was a constant in my life, and I made a number of friends on the tennis courts, chief among them being Dr. Rich Ciavarra. Him and I played almost every day, for hours on end. Let me tell you something about this rare gentleman: He is 72-years old, but has the resolve and fitness of a 40-year old man. When playing with Rich, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the hours spent on the badminton court with my dad. Now that I think back to all the hours playing tennis, I attribute my desire to relive that time on the court with my Pops to be the reason for why I enjoyed tennis with Rich so much. It was as if he was a proxy for my Pops. Only time will tell if I will find someone in Oakland who is as passionate and available to play tennis as he was. Cest la Vie.

Oakland is a very bike friendly city, so I have put my newly fixed up bike to good use this past week, much to the dismay of my “poor” buttocks! My bike has a very stiff seat, so I did some research and bought a new one from Amazon finally; it arrives on Thursday. Guess what it is called: Planet Bike “ARS”! They should have added an “e” at the end, lower case and nondescript, of course! :) I cannot wait to install it on my bike when it arrives and do a test ride.

There is another side to Oakland though, and it hit me in the face a few days ago. I went looking for tennis courts on Tuesday evening after work. No car here, so I got on my trusty but painful bike, and rode around town for about 90-minutes. Unfortunately, I struck out at three spots, and I have lost faith in the veracity of information provided by a website Google ranks really highly: http://tennismaps.com. I first rode to a college, Laney College, because it supposedly had 8-courts in good condition. Reality: the courts had been razed to make way for a new building. Tennis courts, the first casualty of urbanization and increased student enrollment. Down but not out, I rode next to a park with 3-courts, but miscreants had stolen the nets! The nets! What does one do with tennis court nets?!

Not one to quit, or not know when to quit, I decided to try a third recommended location. After riding about 4-miles through a neighborhood that seemed to get seedier with every passing block, I finally reached the park. Much to my dismay, the park was rundown; weeds were everywhere, there were huge cracks in the asphalt and the basketball court, the basketball rims were sans nets, and the air was heavy with a noxious cocktail of spices and weed. A shirtless man was throwing a baseball at a tree, screaming incoherently every few seconds.

In isolation, none of these sights would cause alarm. In their entirety though, they made me shudder. I made an executive decision and turned around immediately. To not panic was the hardest, but I somehow managed to stay calm and transfer as much energy to my pedaling feet as I could. I weaved through a street that had a number of gentlemen sitting on their tailgate catching up on the day’s events while cat-calling passers-by. I rode past homeless people living under the freeway bridge in abject squalor. I didn’t let these sights unsettle my focus. About 10-minutes later, I was back in familiar territory, on the “right” side of the freeway corridor. Relieved to have made it this far, I paused to wonder about the circumstances—commercial, political, sociological—that had resulted in such a stark disparity between two sides of the same city. The heaviness of the thoughts dragged me down, and while I moved on to lighter thoughts once I got home, I do think that the widening chasm between the haves and the have-nots must be bridged if we are to avert an upcoming reckoning. It’s a matter of finding a way at the grass roots level, and building on up.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Growing Chasm between the Tech Press and Users

Us technology folks (fans, users, critics and developers) are living in a time when there is no dearth of tech news. As you would expect, Apple is covered in great depth and breadth by the Technology Press. As a shareholder and Apple device owner, the feverish (borderline fanatical) coverage of Apple minutiae is a blessing and a curse: Apple stock moves based on Tech press sentiment as opposed to fundamentals. The flip side is that I am perennially aware of new features, product releases, growth potential, and a constant stream of rumors and theories on what Apple will do next. I read the following every day:
  • Hacker News
  • QZ
  • WSJ
  • AppleInsider
  • BGR
  • The Verge
I will occasionally browse through the Daring Fireball feed to which I am subscribed. Therefore, I consider myself to be a curious and informed reader. Since I am now purely a consumer/user of technology, I am increasingly interested in coverage that speaks to the "User" as opposed to the "Technologist" perspective when it comes to new product announcements and launches, both hardware and software.

One of my favorite writers covering Technology is Mr. David Pogue. Mr. Walt Mossberg is a close second. I like their style because they inject humor and whimsy into what is an otherwise dull (think of the color beige) subject. Mr. Pogue, in particular,  leverages his knack for making silly and ironic videos to showcase new devices and products, thereby demonstrating to users how he uses a new product or feature as opposed to mere prose. Their focus is the user, and how technology enables users to accomplish a discrete set of goals.

Unlike these two writers, a large percentage of the Technology press these days has shifted the locus of their coverage away from users and on to what technology can and should enable in the future. This contingent of the press seems to want a death match, a zero sum game almost, between the technology Titans  – Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple. Stripes and street cred are won or lost based on who predicts the winner of the next round correctly. The frenzied press coverage comes at us consumers in all formats 24x7: print, social media feeds, audio and video. This has to be a good thing, right? Increasingly, I don't think so!

Alas, the Tech Press, like Film Critics, have lost touch with consumers of technology. Most users with whom I have spoken don't even leverage 10% of the functionality in their current devices across all SKUs (mobile, tablet, laptop). They feel increasingly overwhelmed by what is available on the market, and are extremely skittish about Web-based/Cloud services. One such gentleman has four degrees, one being a PhD! When I asked him how he felt about more technology, he said he had enough to keep him busy. My wife and her family? The same response (except her 24-year old brother, of course). These folks could care less with the future of technology; they are struggling to keep up with what's already available!

Only one of the news outlets that I read balances the "User" with the "Technologist"; it is The Boy Genius Report. The writers do their best to showcase how users can make the most of Technology, regardless of vendor. Their practical articles mixed in with the chief editor's prognostications, compliments and diatribes strike a good balance without coming off as preachy, dour and heavy-handed.

The rest of the Technology Press should consider a similar approach or risk alienating a large reader group that can neither appreciate nor abide news that always makes it seem like nothing is good enough.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The 3P Theorem for Optimizing Distributed User-centric Services

There has been a lot of talk on Distributed, User-centric Web Services enabled by Artificial Intelligence lately. The fierce rivalry between Google, Facebook, Microsoft and Apple has shifted to this new playground, and Apple is lagging behind the competition. Facebook, Google and Microsoft (to some extent) each have a treasure trove of data gathered from users of their purported "free" services. They use this data to build deeply integrated, contextually rich services for users that enable use cases that blow Apple's current crop of services out of the water. While this lack of richness and specificity of context has been Apple's Achilles heel, I like that Apple doesn't mine my personal data to further its corporate goals. How can Apple make progress to even compete with its rivals?

After having looked at the myriad reasons as to why Apple hasn't been able to compete where upstarts like Snapchat and WhatsApp have excelled, I synthesized my findings into a theorem that I call the 3P theorem.
 
Introducing the 3P Theorem

When designing and optimizing massively distributed services, companies have to balance three key considerations:

1. Performance and contextual richness
2. Price
3. Privacy

The 3P theorem states that only any 2 of these 3 considerations can be maximized/optimized when building distributed, user-centric services. This theorem for governing user-centric services optimization is akin to the CAP storage optimization theorem. 

Using the theorem, let's score Apple's rivals, shall we. 

A. In the Red Corner: Facebook and Google.
1. Performance and contextual richness: A 
2. Price: Free: A 
3. Privacy: D

B. In the Blue Corner: Apple 
1. Performance and contextual richness: C 
2. Price: Free tier (higher usage incurs costs): B
3. Privacy: A

As you can see, Apple has taken the alternative approach of sacrificing contextual richness for the sake of upholding user privacy while maintaining an almost free price for all its services. Users like me like me prefer that stance, but I am, as many would say, a dying breed. Millennials, for example, have grown up with Facebook, Snapchat and Google, and couldn't care less what is done with their data as long as they continue to get free access to services. 

For Apple to get a leg up on its rivals then, it needs to increase the contextual richness and purported performance of its services. Something has got to give then, and neither scenario bodes well for Apple. 

1. Charge for services: This proposal is DOA. Few will pay for services that rivals are offering for free. Besides, overcoming technology inertia is one of the most difficult things to do these days.

2. Soften stance on user privacy: While this seems like the most obvious solution, and yesterday's announcement on Differential Privacy indicates that Apple recognizes the need to gather data to tune their AI algorithms, it is a slippery slope. All along, Apple has differentiated itself by claiming that they truly don't mine user data; everything is unequivocally done on the device.

This is a very interesting space that will develop significantly over the next 6-9 months. To compete, especially in the nascent wearables space, Apple has to deliver smarter services to its users, enable sharing and social features, and create recurring revenue streams that offset sagging device sales. As of this writing, I am long AAPL, and recognize the headwinds that can slow them down. But, headwinds are simply decelerators; they aren't show-stoppers. The AAPL show will go on...

Peak Apple Isn't Upon Us

Yesterday was a red letter day for many followers of Apple's software and hardware. Developers, users and financial analysts alike listened with bated breath as Apple's top brass took turns introducing new features and incremental improvements to all its core software platforms:

1. Mobile: iOS
2. Wearable: watchOS
3. Traditional Computing: macOS (new moniker for Mac OS X)
4. Living Room: tvOS

As you can imagine, the announcement was received very differently by its two core sets of constituents: 

1. Users
2. The Press: Financial and Technical

Let me present both view-points to you:

Perspective 1: Users

From a user's standpoint, this was a great announcement. Almost all the changes announced during the keynote seemed logical and much needed enhancements to all platforms. Let's take my household for example: we have 3-iPhones, 3-iPads, 3 MacBooks, 1 iMac, and an AppleTV soon. All my devices will be better integrated, work faster, use on-device storage better (can I get a whoop-whoop for AppleFS), and last longer on the same charge. 

Additionally, the degree of change introduced yesterday varied from platform to platform. This made a lot of sense to me as a user. The most mature, macOS got a few key enhancements and a new name but not much else. Contrast that with watchOS, which got a complete overhaul! For the nascent Apple Watch platform, i.e. watchOS, I share the popular viewpoint that the device was released prematurely. watchOS was just not ready last year! Had the release version of watchOS been as capable and "full term" as the one announced last morning, the Apple Watch wouldn't have been "still born". The device's sales haven't been stellar; dare I say they have been lackluster. Apple actually dropped the price of the device less than a year after it was a year-old. This was an unprecedented move: Apple doesn't really reduce the price of a device until either a carrier decides to subsidize the device's price (in the case of the original iPhone) or it releases a new model (all device releases thus far). We have now learned of a third circumstance in which they reduce prices: pragmatism.

To summarize: Hurrah for users!

Perspective 2: The Press

In the 24-some hours since the announcement, the Technology press has been inundated with Apple doom and gloom type articles. Daring Fireball's @gruber notwithstanding, most of Apple's ardent supporters have said that the company is more into "renovation than innovation" these days. This is no different a tune from that sung since the passing of Steve Jobs. Apple under Tim Cook has been accused of improving as opposed to innovating, incrementally at that. Another accusation routinely leveled at the company has been that it has lost its edge, its mojo. They don't know how "Apple can get its groove back". Hardware-software integration and overall software usability, once Apple's crown jewel, has also come under attack of late. Popular blogger Marco Arment's now widely quoted post from last month alludes to Apple having missed the boat when it comes to Artificial Intelligence services as compared to rivals Google, Facebook and Microsoft. Ouch!

The collective press that covers Apple, as you might have figured, doesn't have the same concerns as us users. They look to Apple for leadership in every market segment, and want Apple to continue to grow their sphere of influence to encompass more domains, more devices, more users, more services, more, more... Unfortunately, Apple isn't delivering like the press wants them to; arguably speaking, they haven't delivered for a while now. Therefore, the press does what it does best: Turn on their darling in the quest for more clicks, more ads, more readership.

Is there a middle ground?

The press's expectations are so absurdly high that they are not achievable. Apple can do no right at the present moment; and while there is some truth to their prognostications of doom, I would characterize Apple's current phase of one of consolidation as opposed to feverish growth. Apple is becoming more and more like Microsoft, acting like a Blue Chip company, and shareholders should rejoice. Unfortunately, the press construes delivering value to be mutually exclusive with being charismatic. And Apple is definitely delivering value.

The broader issue here is that 2 out of the 4-platforms, i.e. 50%, have reached a level of maturity that makes it hard to truly "shock and awe" the pundits. Users will continue to buy and use these devices, but they aren't expecting significant changes at this point in their lifecycle. Take me for example: A Luddite by no means. But, even I seem to like things the way they are, and my platform lock-in is almost irreversible. While I welcome efficiency and usability gains, I would be extremely frustrated if I were faced with the proposition of reacclimatizing myself with a wholly redesigned macOS or iOS.

So, we are at an impasse.

The Path Forward

What we really need is a new interaction paradigm. The Apple Watch is the first salvo but it missed the mark. I am going on a limb here, but something like a hybrid of the watch with a Leap Motion type screen that presents a 1-way viewable hologram with which we can interact would make us rethink how we use devices to stay connected with our networks - personal and professional. Shifting the locus of the discussion to a whole new platform will allow Apple (and other companies) to put the established platforms on a continuous improvement cycle as opposed to the current pressure chamber created by lofty expectations.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hiring Tip: 5-Characteristics of Good Team Members

A key aspect of creating and managing a team is finding the right folks. I have been on good teams and bad ones, and for a while I couldn't figure out why things just didn't work out sometimes. I attributed the lack of cohesion mostly to my personal failings and personality quirks; experience has made me wiser - it wasn't just me.

There are two characteristics that all good teams on which I have been have in common:
1. A management team that is empathetic and cares about the growth of its people;
2. People with domain expertise and an intangible "joie de vivre"

Tons of ink has been spilled on what makes for a great management team. Even more on how to become even better than great at managing teams. I won't attempt to better the work of the good professors at Harvard Business School. Instead, I am going to demystify the "intangible" by sharing a simple rule with you that I call the "Vowels Rule":
A: Accountable
E: Energetic; relentless
I: Intelligent
O: Outcome focused
U: Upstanding and trustworthy
There you have it; my very own rule! As the hiring manager, devise questions and scenarios for your screening/interview process that gauge your prospective team member using these five (5) yardsticks.

Had I known this when I started out in 2001, I might have made better career moves. More importantly, had I known what to look for, I would have consistently hired people on my team with these intangible qualities, increasing my teams' cohesion. It's all good though; I am in a great spot now. Knowing is everything... Q.E.D.

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There is another key aspect of career development and growth that wanted to share with you. The pundits say your career is driven mostly by your capabilities. They are wrong. Your career is more a product of how your boss both perceives and goes to bat for you than anything else. More on that in my next post.

Wednesday, March 02, 2016

Impressing Asian parents is an NP Hard problem

To quote Economist intern, Adnan Sarwar, on why you probably don't need an MBA:
Do it because you want to.
I was trying to please Asian parents. I had failed them in my teens by not getting into medical school, and instead joining the army. You cannot impress Asian parents. Unhappiness is their default. And honestly, I believe they enjoy it. My mother has berated me for over twenty years for not getting an arranged marriage. She never tires of it. I call home to tell her how my job at The Economist is going and there it is—that painful pause, hear it?—and then “When are you going to get married?” If I did get married, my mother would be unimpressed by my choice. If she chose my wife, she would be unimpressed that I was not yet Lakshmi Mittal. My mother is unrelenting.

Which is to say: remember, you do not need an MBA. Only do it if you want to. Food and water are needs; an MBA is an expensive want. Like a Rolex. And that didn't impress my mother either.
I agree with Adnan's assertion, for the most part. Indian parents, moms in particular, can be very difficult to please. The key to overcoming that insurmountable issue is to decouple your sense of self worth from your mom's approval. In a weird twist, once your mom realizes that you are past her judgment, she will stop judging you.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

The Power of a Positive Mindset

What follow are excerpts from a great article on QZ (http://qz.com), which collectively indicate that a positive mindset is key to overcoming adverse circumstances:
Crum’s work has shown that mindsets significantly influence both our physical and mental health in areas as diverse as exercise, stress and diet.
As I look back at the last few years in Men's tennis, the ascendency of Novak Djokovic can be attributed squarely to his self belief and positive mindset. He believes he can win every match he plays, and with a few positive results his belief gets reinforced, thereby creating a virtuous cycle.

Back to the article:
Back on the US East Coast for the holidays, the chill in the air and the early nightfall already had some of my friends and family grumbling. But I was able to convince at least some of them to find what they love about winter and lean into it; looking at winter as an opportunity rather than a burden can help people enjoy all that the season has to offer.
I pointed out that Norwegians embrace the idea of koselig, or “coziness” – that making the conscious effort to light candles and fires, drink warm beverages and snuggle under blankets can be enjoyable and relaxing.
And taking the time to bundle up and get outside even in the worst weather can help you feel like winter isn’t limiting your opportunities for recreation. Norwegians have a saying that “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” which typifies their ingrained belief that being active is part of a happy life – and, especially, a happy winter."