Archives for May 2011

Illusion of Authority

“Once you become a creative director, you realize that authority is an illusion. You’re a negotiator between the client’s taste, the designer’s ego, and the user’s need. You succeed when all three are satisfied.”

– Jeffrey Zeldman @ Cognition

So very true and applies just as well to every activity where there is a value-exchange. It is easy to imagine many freedoms when one does not actually play a new role. Almost always, the higher you go, more the constraints. No amount of reasoning can drive this point in sufficiently to one who does not face the situation directly. I really like the way the lead’s role and constraints are articulated.

Will You Survive A Startup

I have had phenomenal luck in getting to work with some world class people for most of my career. But the good run ended last year, when a majority of my bets on the people front failed. In hindsight I think it was about expectation setting and lack of shared understanding in what it means to work in a startup like environment, specifically within the context of the new people who came on board.

I have attempted to provide my view of what factors are involved in working for a startup or startup-like environment. Obviously I have not covered everything and the factors listed below are relevant to resources I have worked with, or attempted to work with, in Bangalore, India. So some of these factors might not be relevant to your environment.

Technical Skills

This is the foundation upon which all others take their place. Not necessarily all technical but means skills relevant to the function one performs.

If you are an architect, lead or developer then to have skills commensurate with your experience. To think through a problem with rigor and completeness. To bring the same attention to naming a function or class as you would in drawing a grand architectural overview. Not just the syntax but to know the why and the how. Because real-world problems don’t come advertising the solution. You got to investigate, probe and analyze. You need to build a hypothesis and test it. You need an arsenal of techniques to understand and solve the problem.

To think broad during problem analysis and to think deep during execution. To balance form and function. To think of various costs(development, testing, maintaining, supporting etc.) when evaluating possible solutions.

Ability to learn a new tool quickly to solve a problem. To understand that an architecture evolves over a period of time, that nothing worth its salt is ever simple.

Ownership

To own something. Be it a feature, a module or the whole product. To own it in its entirety, from definition to rollout. Own it enough to shepherd it through the challenges of surviving reality. To feel every criticism of your creation as a barb in your being. To cherish every small win as your own.

An attitude and state that is the very antithesis of product efforts at most large organizations and especially service organizations, where one owns a small sliver and spends a life-time becoming an expert in it. An attitude that does not play by the rule book, that demands realization today. An attitude that takes pride in crafting something to be remembered by.

Multi-tasking/Context Shifting

The ability to juggle multiple work-streams, in sequence most of the times and sometimes in parallel. And yet not lose productivity or rigor in execution. One needs to be in the zone to hit the high mode of super productivity, but a startup environment has demands that will not wait or cannot be delegated because there are no people to delegate to.

Being annoyed or saying you cannot deal with context shifts is not an option. You deal with it and survive to battle another day.

Commercial Savviness

Developers usually have little sense of commercial considerations. Sales folks are slightly better at it, though their preferences are colored by the commission they can potentially make. In a startup environment where one person can play product manager, quality assurance/tester, sales and marketing roles, sometimes all in the same day, it is essential every person in the organization brings this commercial savviness to the table. Every decision has a cost and influences what options are available in the future.

Perseverance

When bringing out a product your first set of customers would, almost as a rule, gift you with a barrage of criticism. Especially if your product challenges any of the traditional mindsets adopted in performing a specific function.

A demo to a key large customer would fail because someone updated a piece code a couple of hours back. You would spend months coming close to sign off and the customer would walk away without explaining why. Or a client would be willing to sign only if you had features X, Y and Z, and give them a significant discount because they are willing to go with you.

Or, your new hire does not get the urgency of what you need, does not believe in what you do and spreads bad blood within the team, does not turn out to be the rock star you expected them to be, only provides arm-chair criticism of your strategy without providing a credible alternative. A developer you depend on to deliver a key feature leaves the firm.

You get the drift. Challenges on a daily basis is the norm. Yield and there will be no end until your vision is flattened. Trick is to persevere until the last man standing gets the job done.

Vision

This is the ability to look beyond the obvious. To consider approaches that are unconventional. Articulate needs the customer does not know about yet.

Not everyone in a startup needs this ability, most need to just execute well. But without this ability to see what is not there yet one lacks the key to understand a startup environment. Without the ability to be irrationally passionate about a vision, one does not get the rush of being in a startup. One just sees a bunch of people running about, has no clue what is so special about this effort and leaves disappointed.

Empathy

Finally empathy. It is hard to run a marathon every waking day. It just burns out people. Work-life balance, workplace diversity all come in once there is revenue and a org structure to support the product. Until then you push yourself and your team to the brink of their abilities.

But for those who attempt it, treat them with empathy. It does not matter who. From the junior most team member to the guy driving the show, each is a human with all the strengths and insecurities that make up many of us. Lend each other a hand. Each have their highs and lows. Take a balanced perspective.

Summary

In summary, some people are not just cut out for a startup environment. They might not be skilled enough, might be suited to lesser efforts, cannot offer the dedication required or just have different goals. And that is okay. They should be humble enough to accept it and move on, and you should be understanding enough to let them go amicably.

Because the Buddha did not ordain everyone who crossed his path, nor did Christ pick every passerby as a disciple, it is just the way it is. Some are destined and some are not 🙂

And for those who join the ride, reward dedication. Be fiercely loyal to the team that has trusted you. Believe in your vision. Craft beautiful things. Cherish every victory. Fight a good fight. And become the story a handful share with each other in the future.

[Note: Apologies for the lack of structure. I just had to get this out. Comments/Feedback appreciated.]

Idea – Flipboard for Financial Research

FlipboardForiPad

Flipboard is a personalized, social magazine for online content. Currently an iPad app, it has completely revolutionized media consumption for me.

Media consumption workflow

Almost 90% of my online time is spent on iPad/Fliboard at home. My twitter, facebook and rss feeds all are rendered in beautiful magazine layout. Add the ability to share the content again via Twitter or store for later via Instapaper and I have the right workflow for media discovery and consumption on the iPad.

Rich media aggregators like Flipboard on the iPad are the harbingers of how online media should be presented and consumed.

Online News and Financial Research

This has been interesting to me since my day job is running a product business that helps research analysts produce financial research. There are many similarities between online news and social media feeds and financial research. There should be no reason why the same experience available for news via iPad should not be possible for financial research.

Antiquated Tools

Of course reality is a little more complicated than that. Financial services firms are typically behind on the technology adoption curve. Research is produced using antiquated tools, stored in proprietary file formats and distributed in PDF.

What about RIXML?

RIXML, an XML standard, has been around as a structured way to publish and distribute research and the data elements surrounding it. But its adoption has been hampered due to complexity of specification, clunky authoring tools or reluctant businesses who don’t see sufficient ROI via this approach.

Whilst I have my own views on the utility of RIXML, I firmly believe a structured form of data exchange will benefit all parties concerned. Some of these capabilities, or consequences of using a structured data format in popular tools for research authoring from my firm and others.

Sellability

But it is always a tough sell when talking about the benefits of serialization formats, metadata in general and adhering to a standard taxonomy and making the output available in a standardized format.

With Flipboard it becomes easier to sell the benefits of publishing content in standardized formats. Because without RSS feeds and standard ways of marking up and publishing content Flipboard-like experiences would be an impossibility.

Last thoughts

Of course I do get that financial research is mixture of structured and unstructured data and there are a ton of cool things that can be done here to make the job of communicating and consuming insights a vastly superior experience to what it is now.

Drop a note/comment if you are interested to hear more or wish to discuss.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System

Meet the fusion of data visualization, interactive exploration and touch based interfaces.

Interactive Exploration of a Dynamical System from Bret Victor on Vimeo.

Hope you are as excited as I am. This is not just a pretty visualization but can be a sign of how touch-based app interfaces can enable interaction with various end-points of a system.

In this case it is seed states that initiate the system, coefficients that determine strength of each rule and how each rule interacts with the rest of the system.

But it can be so much more. Anything that can be represented as a model can have an interface like this to allow dynamic exploration. Imagine a model that represents the financial health of a country or a company, perhaps in real-time. Tweak various parameters and it reflects on the bottom-line, immediately.

What do you think?

Found via Asymco

Hear Voices from Colonial India

Bharath as it was

The British undertook a linguistic survey of Bharath, as it was before the partitions. Recordings were made as part of the survey. Hear these voices, preserved in Gramophone records. The recordings were lost since then but were recently found and digitized.

The entire archive of recordings are nothing short of splendid. Grouped by region and language family, it has people recite common stories, parables or episodes from the epics.

I, for obvious reasons, listened to the languages I know or whose sounds I am familiar with – telugu, tamil, malayalam, kannada and bengali. But the real surprise is listening to languages you know nothing of. Without knowing the words and their meaning, you get to savor just the modulation of sound. Its beautiful, trust me.

You can find more coverage here, and hat-tip for pointing goes to LanguageHat.

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Heuristics for Learning

I learn best when left to chose my topic or when confronting a problem I wish to solve. It is fortunate I am presumptuous enough to attempt solving every problem I come across ;).

Also, as an aside, it should be no coincidence that I learnt the little that I know once I got out of school.

As a self-learner I continuously look for aids that would accelerate the learning process. So, this ‘Teaching Manifesto‘, was an excellent find. Though rendered from the perspective of a teacher, these methods are as relevant to the student.

Some quotes that struck a chord in me:

Fight mediocrity

Use words well

Fight apathy

Don’t wait for an expert to fix it.

Remember: The only formulas are thinking and love and hard work.

There is more where that came from, head there by clicking here.

When Curiosity Dies..

..we have learnt to arrange events for ourselves in comfortable cause and effect buckets. When all is explained with the lens of our subjective interpretations, there is little else we allow to enter our purview.

..with it goes the joy of discovery and the enthusiasm for meaningful labor. What remains is a machine, that goes through the charade but is present no longer, a mere automata that lives and breathes and whose gears engage no more.

..we perceive ourselves wiser than everything around. And a cynic is born scoffing at the labors of men.

..categorical truths are born that anoint a single future out of the many that are possible.

On Serendipity

Serendipity is merely causality that cannot yet be explained with the aid of reason.

The mechanics of existence are not explained merely by the methods of material manifestation.

Web Is What You Make Of It

Web is a blank canvas on which we can narrate our story. Watch this Google Ad that captures this sentiment.