Archives for May 2012

Aaron Sorkin – Commencement Address at Syracuse University

Aaron Sorkin is the screenplay writer for The Social Network, the movie about Facebook. If you have seen the movie it should be apparent how brilliant the screenplay was. So Aaron delivered the commencement address at Syracuse University. Some quotes below-

Develop your own compass, and trust it. Take risks, dare to fail, remember the first person through the wall always gets hurt.

Don’t ever forget that you’re a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day. Civility, respect, kindness, character.

You’re too good for schadenfreude, you’re too good for gossip and snark, you’re too good for intolerance.

Being the storyteller he is, Aaron does a good job of narrating the trajectory of his career and life. I gained much, really think you should read it in full here.

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What we can learn from GM taking advts off Facebook

social network

General Motors took their advertisement spend off Facebook.[1. GM pull ads off Facebook] Given the expectation around Facebook’s IPO, this is seen as bad news for Facebook. On the contrary I believe this is a classic example of how old world companies wrongly perceive paradigm shifts in technology and technology-enabled interactions. Will keep this brief but could do with some review and discussion from your end.

First let us understand how advertisements are served online today. A random user, say Ajay, does a search for a car or a related service like motor insurance. This keyword is watched by search engines or advertisement providers like Google, to whom vendors have bid on specific keywords to trigger display of their advertisements. So what you have is Intent -> translated to keywords -> keywords matched to list bid by vendors -> advertisement displayed. As you can see this is simple and works reliably. Works because their is a clear articulation of intent, you know what you are looking for before you hit a search engine. Variations can occur when advertisements are displayed in specific vertical sites, say like designer related tools on a site like Smashing Hub.

Now, think about what is lacking in this workflow from which Google makes most of its revenue. What is lacking is an understanding of the user. Who is she, what does she like, care about and so on. Yes, Google can and does track what searches you have made, what links you end up visiting..but these allow Google to only infer what you are as a person.

So, where does Facebook come in here. FB is your social network. You receive updates of what your connections liked, updated, saw, read and so on and likewise all your updates are propagated out. All within a single homogeneous network. This is a goldmine of engagement data using which FB can build a detailed profile of a person. Imagine how richly targeted advertisements can be on FB. A vendor could potentially say, “FB serve ads to people in Manhattan, NY area, who are environmentally conscious, like organic products and like kittens”. Am not aware to what granularity FB allows to target people but if they wanted they could do it. That precision in being able to target a message, will allow organizations to adapt messages, discounts etc to suit a particular demographic.

Now to GM. If a car vendor thinks, showing a bunch of ads on FB is going to drive sales or engagement for their car related services, they surely don’t understand what social media is about. Social media is about brand-engagement, being on top of mind for target demographic, its like a grease that smoothens all aspects of customer outreach. Taking an old business model, showing ads about your products to gain customers, to a brand new technology enabled capability like a social network will not work. The parallel I can think of is when organizations started doing Flash websites to show interactions without understanding underlying principles of hyper text.

Anyway, enough cribbing. What would I do if I were boss of advert spend on GM? There must be a hundred stories behind every car that GM has manufactured. Tell these stories on Facebook, get customers to connect with people behind the brand. Or highlight customer stories, where a safety feature saved a life, or a student who used a GM car for his first day at college or first job. Travel from point A to B need not be mundane, anchor it to aspirations, ambitions, identity and culture, then you have a much bigger canvas to experiment with. I feel FB is the first wave of social media platforms that are going to change how the world goes about living. But it takes work and creativity to harness a new medium like FB, just throwing ads to see if something sticks will not work.

What would you do if you were boss of GM? Share thoughts in the comments section.

Creative Commons License Frits Ahlefeldt-Laurvig via Compfight

Doing the Right Thing

CSS3MachineHero

Last week I came across a review of CSS3Machine, an iPad app to create CSS3 styles and animations.

Naturally, I was eager to get any help on the CSS front and got onto the AppStore. When I tried to visit the app page, I got the familiar message that app was only available in the US Store. iTunes shifted to the US store and then threw an error saying app was not available. Thinking it must be an error due to a wrong link, I visited the website and tried again. Same result.

Determined not to be thwarted, I used the contact form and wrote asking why the app was not available. And I got a response from Daniel Eckhart, who I guess is prime mover for CSS3Machine.

It’s not just India.

I’ve made the decision to temporarily pull CSS3Machine all app stores. The recent changes to CSS3 “best practices” as well as changes to iOS and Webkit have conspired to put CSS3Machine behind the times, and I felt it was no longer a product I could stand behind.

I hope get it updated soon.

The product was pulled because, apart from technical reasons, the developer felt he could no longer stand behind it. This is a fine example of an ethical action, not a blind adherence to a random moral code, but the result of carefully considered possibilities and laced with ideas of pride in ones work, ownership and the ability to take a commercially bitter decision because it is the “right thing to do”.

Contrast this with the JP Morgan trader who blew two billion dollars trading in credit default swaps. Incidentally he was nicknamed “Voldemort” which I found charmingly apt in a curious way.

I have nothing against the trader. Doing the right thing is difficult. Greed and crude ambition clouds judgement. Weakness of character makes people take shortcuts. But in all that littleness around, there is Daniel Eckhart, developer of a tiny product who foregoes revenue because its the right thing to do. My faith in humanity grew a little more. I urge you to check CSS3Machine and buy it when its updated and re-released. And of course, in all small and big things we do it would help to “do the right thing”.

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Product Management Lessons from an Android User

Android vs. Alien

My views on why Samsung/Android sucks drew some fun reactions. Here I summarize my understanding of how to build products, based on the horrible experience I have had with my Samsung Galaxy S2. I will try to keep emotions out of the way here btw.

Spec is not the product

The map is not the territory and the spec is not the product. It is possible to manufacture an alluring product which sucks when used..whether in usability, reliability, utility and more. For example, the Galaxy S2 has a beautiful display, dual-core chip, extensible memory and Google’s Android..yet when its all put together we get a strange concoction instead of a smooth martini we were expecting. Engineers need supervision by artists. And please don’t get lawyers anywhere close.

Design for use not just for selling

A big factor in how customers buy products is by checking a bunch of features, it is human to maximize what we get for our cash. It is the same process an enterprise goes through when it tries to procure a product. But if your design is driven by specs that will get attention of customer then you are not doing something right. Attention is just the first step, engagement is next. Design for use. Design for day to day experience.

Take Samsung/Android’s claim of being a multi-tasking mobile OS, what did it lead to? Piss-poor battery life. Side effects? Well, the display has to be switched off to conserve battery. When reading a long text the UI goes off. Samsung fixed this in Galaxy S3(check Smart Stay), guess how? Well, they put an algorithm to figure out you are staring at the device by using the camera. So the problem(display going off to conserve battery) caused by a feature(multi-tasking), required a feature(camera based recognition if you are using device) that will aggravate problem(poor battery life/power management) further.

See how Microsoft pitches its Windows Phone by asking people to do common tasks, that shows attention to detail and not trying to sugarcoat junk. And btw, if I had not spent money on Galaxy S2, would have gladly bought the Nokia Lumia 800 or 900..I tried it out and its sheer joy to use. Windows Phone has original UI design and fantastic developer support.

Step back, dig in constantly

See the big picture of how a customer would perceive your product. Then get into details of how it is implemented and the implications. Do this constantly, for every thing you do. Good products are good through out because people who built it actually cared about details. It is not enough if the hardware is awesome, the apps are the ‘Smart’ in a ‘SmartPhone’. Your default apps are crucial. They need to be awesome. If awesome is not your style, then be fair and allow the customer to do what she wants with the device she paid for..allow to uninstall those apps without having to jailbreak.

Every customer touchpoint is the product

To a customer anything that carries your logo is you. Whether its an utility you provide(Samsung Kies 2.0), or associated help(online help from Samsung/Android), or any upgrade process(say the OS!), everything reflects on you. The attention to detail shown for how the device looks does not extend to software and every other aspect of Samsung/Android. It is as if Jekyll designed hardware and Hyde took over for software and all related services.

Don’t sell anything customers will buy

Not all customers are smart. As a product vendor you might only care about who can afford your product. But money is not everything over the long run. Vendors can choose to do the right thing and do what is best for the customer, even if the product or service is opinionated. Its easy to fool customers, especially the non-technical ones in the short-run. Do the right thing, it always pays off in the long run.

Photo Credit: JD Hancock via Compfight

How does it feel to run a startup?

Running a startup feels like mystery

Warning! If your heart and mind are immune to poetry, and its ability to communicate complex ideas and feeling, please stop reading and come back later!

Silence yourself, really..whatever it is you are doing now, just let it all go. Done? Okay, here is a little poem that gives a hint of how it feels to launch a startup and create a product. As I said, if you have never felt poetry hit your heart, this might not work. Anyway, pay attention and read it now.

How to build an Owl

Decide you must.

Develop deep respect

for feather, bone, claw.

Place your trembling thumb

where the heart will be:

for one hundred hours watch

so you will know

where to put the first feather.

Stay awake forever.

When the bird takes shape

gently pry open its beak

and whisper into it: mouse.

Let it go.

That gentlemen is how it is. There is indeed a science and reasoning behind everything but a large part of it feels like a mystery. You could have been an Oracle in a temple of Delphi trying to figure out what the spirits are trying to say!

If there is just one aspect I have to highlight as most terrifying, then it would be figuring out what to build. That single question is like every imaginary evil figure come together just to mess with you. You think that is easy? Ah, I thought the same too. Let me clarify. This is like the Mule, Zombies, Satan, Voldemort and..and Sauron coming together..they all shake hands just to mess with you..exclusively. That said, it is an amazing ride and sure beats playing politics and putting up with mediocrity.

Credits: Poem by Kathleen Lynch, discovered via Jack Cheng.Creative Commons License Photo Credit: Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel via Compfight

Executive Education is Useless

MBA

I got an email from INSEAD’s Leadership Programme for Senior Indian Executives (ILPSIE) on LinkedIn today. Their well-intentioned mail was to..see quote below

ILPSIE is aimed exclusively at Indian managers with an average of 14-15 years of experience. ILPSIE primarily seeks to improve fast growing Indian companies’ “bench strength” of skilled general managers, thereby enabling them to successfully capitalize on growth opportunities.

bench strength“..what the ****?! And “skilled general managers“?? I have nothing against INSEAD by the way.

I feel this is standard for the Indian/old world mindset, the ignorant belief that an MBA endows you with superpowers. Once that is done one could sail into clouds of senior management. Or get a coveted role within the financial industry. Or deal with rigors of managing any business in reality.

It used to be true when life was lot simpler but not true anymore.

An MBA teaches you basic heuristics and patterns of rational thinking. Anyone with 2 ounces of motivation and 1 ounce of opportunity can get the same thing, for lower cost and possibly faster, using books plus contacts in the old world and getting online in the new world. The value that society attached to degrees will cease being relevant. Old world HR departments, who cannot judge your technical skill, will still want to know if you have a degree and how much marks you got. Ignore companies with such HR folks and think in this fashion, there culture would be messed up anyway.

Knowledge can be gained if you have the interest for it. iTunesU is worth more than every average professor you have had.

Corporate sponsorship of MBA programs is another route where old world power brokers render favors to the devout. Forget it, you can make or learn way more if you will work for it.

A piece of paper that declares what you know is crap..what you reveal, share and deliver everyday is what matters. Over a 15 year career I have known folks with MBAs from prestigious institutions and got laid off because they were clueless for anything beyond college, textbook, or routine corporate scenarios.

The world is getting complex. The Dark Age, or Kali Yuga, the ancient Hindu equivalent of “Winter is coming” already here.

What should you do? Forget MBA. Learn how to program, understand basics of finance and launch a business..you will learn as much, if not more, as an MBA teaches you.

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