Archives for 2013

The Apple Method. Steal it, If You Can!

So Samsung’s marketing firm interviews those in queue for the new Apple iPhone 5S and 5C. Wonder why they even bothered to do that. Here is the secret that Apple “fanboys” intuitively get, even if they cannot articulate it always. The Apple Method is available in the open. Are you fit enough to steal it?

From such simple and obvious principles emerge the confounding complexity of building a sophisticated phone and surrounding ecosystem.

Every time Apple sneezes, folks in town are rallied, pitchforks raised to rid the land of this “otherness”. I wonder what rankles and rouses everybody to react so. Perhaps because Apple has an opinion? That they are presumptuous enough to know what matters? Or is it just old-fashioned tribal thinking, whoever does not look, think, dress, dream, play and pray like me is evil or uncivilized?

Anyway, the video is another example of craftsmanship and resulting from deep introspection. Just for fun, watch it with headphones on and observe the delightful soundscape.

Apple caters for those who delight in the details. They don’t always get it right, but then no company can.

“No One Knows What’s Possible” – Myths of Innovation

MythOfInnovation

What you do not see is where it all happens.

The shiny demo of your favorite awesome product is perhaps the very last step of a journey that must have begun way earlier. I had grown to appreciate this fact only after I had gone through creating something original. Reading Scott Berkun’s Myths of Innovation reinforced my experiences and clarified my understanding of how to innovate and how to sustain teams that innovate. My semi-brief review follows.

Myth of Epiphany

Scott starts with an anecdote. While observing visitors on a tour of Google’s offices, he hears one of them ask, “Where is the search engine? Are we going to see it?” and another one question, “I see them talking and typing, but when do they come up with their ideas?”.

With that preamble, he dismantles popular perceptions of Innovation. The notion of ideas emerging and materializing fully formed in bright minds is very common. Those who have no access to inner workings of minds, invariably see the final result as having issued out perfectly. But every myth of perfect instant creation defies common sense. By way of explaining this belief in myths, Scott says,

Myths are often more satisfying to us than the truth, which explains their longevity and resistance to facts: we want to believe that they’re true..myths always serve promotion more than education.

The notion of epiphany is dismissed not only because it defies common sense, but it ignores the foundation of ideas upon which every new idea is built.

Any seemingly grand idea can be divided into an infinite series of smaller, previously known ideas…there is no singular magic moment; instead, there are many smaller insights accumulated over time.

Big thoughts are fun to romanticize, but it’s many small insights coming together that bring big ideas into the world.

I could not help but relate it to popular stories about the Buddha. They say He sat under the Bodhi tree one day, vowing to himself not to get up until he found the secret of release from suffering and untangling the knot of individual existence. Again that idea of a magical realization.

What is ignored is the grueling work the Buddha put in, the teachers he learnt from, the social conditions that supported(or opposed!) his enquiry, the spiritual knowledge that existed..and many other factors that all went into the cauldron of his experience to finally issue out as Nirvana.

The notion of waiting for epiphany is again debunked with a beautiful quote of Ted Hoff, inventor of the first microprocessor.

If you’re always waiting for that wonderful breakthrough, it’s probably never going to happen. Instead, what you have to do is keep working on things. If you find something that looks good, follow through with it.

Evolution of Ideas

Scott moves then to historical context of new ideas. How ideas evolve, how having good ideas don’t automatically make things better and how its impossible to predict if an idea is good without seeing its long term utility. I especially loved this point.

The wonders of Greece and Rome didn’t prevent our clumsy civilization-wide slide into the Dark Ages.

Merely having good ideas of democracy don’t matter, if the populace is governed by lesser ideas as in the case of Europe’s middle ages. But as history shows, good ideas do win out over time, the ancient genius of Greece won, even if a victory limited to politics. Which leads to the next insight.

Dominant designs dominate history

The fact that there are “dominant designs” implicitly states that there are designs that are not dominant. The ones who lost out in an evolutionary “survival of the fittest” struggle. History only captures the idea strain that survived, the others forgotten. This is illustrated with a good diagram.

Myths_of_Innovation_Idea_tree

Method of Innovation

The bad news here? There is no methodology. For how can innovation, a journey the the unknown, have a map! Now the book moves to cost of innovation and its beginnings.

Innovating comes at a price: it might be money, time, sanity, friends, or marriages, but there will definitely be one.

Everyone wants to know where the magic happened, and since they can’t imagine the magic sprinkled across years of work, they assume it’s a secret—a tangible, sin- gular element hiding behind the start. Like our endless quest to explain the origins of things, we’re prone to seeking magic in beginnings.

Curiosity does not make innovation happen. And without a beginning we merely play at “using others’ proven magic” and do not understand how easy it is to fail.

Spread of Innovation

Some counter-intuitive statements here. Scott looks to Everett M Rogers, author of Diffusion of Innovations and states,

..anthropological approach to innovation, suggesting that new ideas spread at speeds determined by psychology and sociology, not the abstract merits of those new ideas.

I thought this was brilliant insight and helped me appreciate how important marketing is to help drive adoption for a new idea.

Your Boss Knows More

The seventh chapter is worth the price of admission. There is specific insight on how innovation may be enabled. And it starts with a declaration,

..no one knows what’s possible

Scott frames that statement in the context of Industrial era style managers. He who wants certainty cannot expect to stumble upon an uncertain innovation. But managers can provide key support by providing cover fire, supporting a culture that encourages goal-based exploration and the most important by persuading stakeholders, potential team members and customers. I loved the following quotes. First on use of humor, Scott quotes a former Dean of Yale Medical School.

One way to tell when something important is going on is by laughter. It seems to me that whenever I have been around a laboratory at a time when something very interesting has hap- pened, it has at first seemed to be quite funny. There’s laughter connected with the surprise—it does look funny. And whenever you hear laughter…you can tell that things are going well and that something probably worth looking at has begun to happen in the lab.

That really got me smiling because my luck for working with people with a warped sense of humor continues at our startup. I have no scientific evidence for this but warped humor indicates the quality of mind behind it. Ability to see different perspectives, to see absurdity where it is not apparent, to see impossibility and yet grapple with it though it is so foolish…so many things about pushing boundaries of possibility are catalyzed by humor.

Innovators Do

Subsequent chapters cover how good ideas win, identifying good problems. The epilogue has a brilliant paragraph that is even self-critical of books about innovation :). It summarizes a specific view on innovations and innovators.

When considering the creators of the great works of the past, it’s surprising how few of them studied innovation or creative thinking. From van Gogh to Edison, Steve Jobs to Dave Eggers, almost none of them studied any of these topics in any conventional way. They didn’t read innovation books, and they didn’t take innovation classes. They miraculously overcame the frightening lack of TED videos and Malcolm Gladwell essays in their day, and found inspiration on their own. Many of them were dropouts or wanderers in the spaces between disciplines and professions. However, what they did do was pick specific problems they were passionate about, and got to work. They focused on those problems, often with little guarantee of reward. My point is that they didn’t seem to need much understanding of innovation as an abstract concept, which many people today believe is the place to start. But a strong case can be made that the opposite is true. Many of the great figures didn’t care to study; they preferred to do. They quickly got to work trying to solve important problems—that in some cases they thought they could profit from—and learned along the way. Perhaps the greatest myth of all is that you need to be an expert in innovation in order to change the world.

I would definitely recommend Scott’s book Myths of Innovation. There is a clarity in Scott’s writing, a systematic laying out of context and leading the reader through mind and mechanics that enable & support innovation. And you dear reader can supply that dose of madness and attempt the impossible!

Disclosure: Review done as part of O’Reilly Blogger Review Program and I got a review copy of this book.

Android and iOS – Two Approaches to Managing Constraints

iOS-Home

In a perfect world with infinite resources, one can create a perfect product. It would be a thing of beauty, with oodles of functional excellence and be dirt cheap. Unfortunately that world does not exist but in the fevered imaginations of dreamers. The rest of us have to live with constraints the real world imposes. We think hard about which audience we create the product for, how will it help solve their problems, what price will they pay, and so on. I have learnt a lot from this post on constraints by Matt Gemmell. Some quotes from that post, which should be read and assimilated in its entirety by the way.

All technology imposes constraints.

There are many factors to consider. Performance and power consumption. Size and weight. Noise and heat. Beauty, durability, and portability. Connectivity and upgradeability. Compatibility and of course cost. At buying time, we presumably consider availability too. They’re all interrelated in various ways, forming a complex web of trade-offs.

What will you optimize for, given the constraints imposed. What is more important to you as a creator. What is important to users you wish to target. But the hard reality is this, Users don’t really get to make a complete choice.  The hard choices are already made by the designer.

I remember Steve Jobs mentioning in one of his presentations that users employ product creators to make these decisions on their behalf. It is the job of the designer to choose between constraints judiciously. Not to randomly tack on features because it helps tick off one more check box in the minds of consumers who might not think deeply. Whether multi-tasking is a benefit when considering power management on a mobile device. Whether screen-size accounts for ergonomics of a human holding the device.

Superficial customization, extensibility options provide an illusion of control for the end user but come saddled with unacceptable tradeoffs for some users. For example extensible memory on my Galaxy S2 was seldom used. I preferred syncing over Wi-Fi or even a cable with my PC.

As a concrete example of how engineering decisions impact user experience, see this post by a Google engineer on why Android does not have a Fluid UI experience and might never have one. Here is the money quote:

It’s not GC pauses. It’s not because Android runs bytecode and iOS runs native code. It’s because on iOS all UI rendering occurs in a dedicated UI thread with real-time priority. On the other hand, Android follows the traditional PC model of rendering occurring on the main thread with normal priority.

That gentlemen is a classic example of a design decision taken on the Android platform. Deep in the bowels of the OS is a decision that ripples up to the UI. Of course am not sure if this was a decision to not optimize for fluid user interface. Or perhaps it was a legacy constraint that Android engineers could not work around.

The point is this, what are you optimizing for. Will you take the hard engineering decisions, that would not be seen or even understood by 99% of your users? Will you ask user’s to trust your judgement or will you take the lazy route and give everything the user asks for?

Apple chooses to optimize for user experience, for tactile responsiveness. Android chooses to optimize, or not, for broadest compatibility across a range of devices. Seen another way, the choices seem to be whether to work well on a single class of devices or work sub-optimally on a range of devices. What the designer chooses says a lot about their priorities. Which platform a customer chooses says a lot about what constraints they are willing to live with in exchange for what services.

Don’t miss reading Matt’s post, it opens up additional perspectives on how one should think when creating anything.

Belief System for Continual Progress

William_Faulkner

Ta-Nehisi Coates shares snippets from an interview with William Faulkner. The topic being the amoralism(lacking a moral sense) of being a writer. I would not have characterized it as “amoralism” but rather as “belief system”. Faulkner sizzles in articulating this belief system of a novelist, and perhaps of himself. All that he says is 100% true of any creative endeavor- whether you are starting a company, creating a product, participating in a competition or learning music. This is like Arjuna, or perhaps Achilles, talking about what it takes to be a warrior. Go digest these words:

Impossible Goal

All of us failed to match our dream of perfection. So I rate us on the basis of our splendid failure to do the impossible. In my opinion, if I could write all my work again, I am convinced that I would do it better, which is the healthiest condition for an artist. That’s why he keeps on working, trying again; he believes each time that this time he will do it, bring it off. Of course he won’t, which is why this condition is healthy. Once he did it, once he matched the work to the image, the dream, nothing would remain but to cut his throat, jump off the other side of that pinnacle of perfection into suicide.

I simply love the axiom-like assertion of the first sentence and the oxymoron(splendid failure) in the second. Act and raise yourself. And repeat! Perfection is an impossibility, so get ever closer to it. The striving is its own reward.

Formula to Follow

Ninety-nine percent talent . . . ninety-nine percent discipline . . . ninety-nine percent work. He must never be satisfied with what he does. It never is as good as it can be done. Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.

Your swabhava, inner disposition, is to be the guide of your efforts. Following the law meant for another only leads to chaos, jealousy, confusion. The Gita declares the same thing, to follow your own dharma rather than that of another.

Demons and Muses

An artist is a creature driven by demons. He don’t know why they choose him and he’s usually too busy to wonder why. He is completely amoral in that he will rob, borrow, beg, or steal from anybody and everybody to get the work done.

Two opposing elements churn the being of an artist or a creator. The one is bright, luminous and leads him to higher ground. The other is dark, brooding, wrathful and doubting. Between these opposing pulls our being is churned. We laugh, cry, dream, suffer and create. All our works are born thus.

Creator’s Responsibility

The writer’s only responsibility is to his art. He will be completely ruthless if he is a good one. He has a dream. It anguishes him so much he must get rid of it. He has no peace until then. Everything goes by the board: honor, pride, decency, security, happiness, all, to get the book written.

Focus and resourcefulness. A single minded aspiration to realize the dream. Nothing else distracts him from that endeavor.

Art Can Come From

Good art can come out of thieves, bootleggers, or horse swipes. People really are afraid to find out just how much hardship and poverty they can stand. They are afraid to find out how tough they are. Nothing can destroy the good writer. The only thing that can alter the good writer is death. Good ones don’t have time to bother with success or getting rich.

Faulkner really nails this one. What do you fear? What are you willing to sacrifice to create something? What will make you stop trying?

A Word Holds a World – Pitfalls in Design Thinking

To design something is not a random process. The creative act has its characteristic associative leaps within and between concepts. Pinning words to these concepts can limit design thinking. A few thoughts on this topic.

If we’re thinking of a lunchbox, we’ll be really careful not to have the word ‘box’ already give you a bunch of ideas which are … quite narrow.– Jonathan Ive

David McGillivray has written a beautiful post on how labels are saddled with assumptions and how it narrows design thinking. The context is a design competition to build a lunchbox that is also a bag and a pencil box. Some fantastic quotes from David’s post. 

Labels have to exist because we have to talk about projects with people when we’re working on them, and if an element doesn’t have a name, we need to give it one so people know what the hell we’re talking about.

..right, next is the “Profile Page.” Just this generic label alone starts the design process in my head. Immediately, my subconscious cross-references all the profile pages I’ve seen and compiles a generic layout for me. 

it’s not our fault, it’s (hopefully) not because we’re bad designers, but because ofhow our brains are wired to work. The association that occurs is an unconscious process that plots its commute along well-worn neural pathways that are formed and reinforced everyday as we work, and discuss design.

The entire post is a fantastic deconstruction of how designers approach designing. Make sure you read it. 

Its fascinating how a mind cognizes the world. Every sensory input is labelled, classified, stored and processed away. Being aware of this cognitive process invariably makes you a better thinker. It does not matter if you are not a designer, even as programmers or product managers, one invariably has to name a class or a feature or an entire product. Awareness of how an idea will be perceived makes you able to choose an appropriate name.

And I also find the idea of conjuring a whole world of visuals, feelings, ideas, words and preferences from merely uttering a word as akin to magic. Assume I said, “Game of Thrones” or “Mahabharatha” or “Illiad” or “Scala”. Based on your exposure to these works, a whole set of impressions would have been brought in front of your mind’s eye. It is miraculous how the mind has an entire set of impressions stored and indexed and is able to retrieve it in real-time. And this is not just lexical matches, even semantically associated/related terms are brought out.

A mythologically inclined mind would treat us as magicians, by our ability to bring up worlds of experience with a mere word! Perhaps there is something to it when Vyaasa said, 

The world is like an impression left by the telling of a story. – Rishi Vyaasa

And watch the video of Jony Ive reviewing lunchbox designs. Such humility in his stance. And the Apple lab is not shabby either! 

How do you think about thinking and design? What is occurring in your head just now?

The Sphinx in a Startup

sphinx-entrance

Whatever it may otherwise lack, a Startup is blessed with an abundance of unknowns. What is the product? Who is the customer? What is the value proposition? How will you sell? At what price point? The utterly simple yet immensely vexing answer to all these questions is “We don’t know fully”. Of course I jest, but only a little. This is the Sphinx posing its riddles.

In a startup, everything and nothing is open for exploration. Sounds like one of those contradictory Zen statements but believe me there is nothing remotely calm or enlightening about this state.

When friends or ex-colleagues try to comprehend our proposition, there is always a glint of sympathy in their eyes. I almost hear them thinking, “How misguided could you get?”, “Can’t you focus on key features?”, “Where is your execution plan?”, “Are you making money?”, “I did a MVP last weekend, what takes you so much time?” and so on.

Or when arguing about evolving the product in a specific direction with my team, I always feel the tension. Features change, evolve, mutate like a precocious two year old’s imagination. What was to be a journey to India, is possibly leading us to an entirely different continent, while making us feel lost in a wide sea of unknowns.

How do I deal with it? Well, the unknown to me is always a possibility. Something to be unwrapped and explored. As my Guru Sri Aurobindo, says in an aphorism:

The sense of impossibility is the beginning of all possibilities.

To confront impossibility is to stand firm in front of the Sphinx posing its riddles. You stand and answer its questions. The more it questions, the deeper you dig and answer. If you give up, the Sphinx wins.

Whether its rewriting a feature you removed few weeks back. Or venturing into a technical area you know very little about. Or doing a pre-sales call. Or dealing with a hundred less than ideal situations at work and elsewhere. That is the Sphinx presenting itself to you.

The Sphinx is not a statue posing its impossibility on a ocean of sand far far away. The Sphinx is a customized version of impossibility created just for you. To everyone else the riddle is plain, simple and they might think you naive, perhaps even that you are stupid. It could be true too. But this is your impossibility. Your personal Tour De France. Your Everest. This is Xerxes confronting you with his Persian might.

The Sphinx demands answers. The unknown demands exploration. Tenacity is what you must live and breathe. To wake up and greet your unknowns. To welcome them one by one. To dissect and get into and get around them. To do everything but giving up.

And then you might hear one day, as I did earlier today, “This has promise”, in reference to our product. There is still long way to go but hey, even the imaginary sound of seagulls is music to my ears now.

Massive. Ugly. Asymmetric. Behold the Iron Throne!

So formidably beautiful. Behold the Iron Throne, the seat of power for which “Kings are dying like flies”.

GoT-IronThrone

If you have not yet caught up with Game of Thrones, it might be time you did so. The novel by George RR Martin, and the HBO series of it are both awesome.

In George’s own words about the Iron Throne:

This Iron Throne is massive. Ugly. Assymetric. It’s a throne made by blacksmiths hammering together half-melted, broken, twisted swords, wrenched from the hands of dead men or yielded up by defeated foes… a symbol of conquest… it has the steps I describe, and the height. From on top, the king dominates the throne room. And there are thousands of swords in it, not just a few.

This Iron Throne is scary. And not at all a comfortable seat, just as Aegon intended.

Look on his works, ye mighty, and despair.

George has a way with words, a unique ability to bring his imaginary worlds to life and make it tangible for mere mortals like us to gape at. The art work itself is by Marc Simonetti.

(via iO9)

Two Types of Narcissists

Narcissus-Caravaggio

The professional world abounds in Narcissists, those with an unusually high sense of their own awesomeness. Whether you are a Narcissist, or have to deal with one, it helps to have a nuanced understanding of this syndrome.

The first type. Is skilled. Accomplished. Perhaps decorated by the world. Has mapped the perimeters of his domain and sees himself as unassailable. The second type. Is willing to be skilled. Yet to accomplish anything significant. Decorates himself. Has no inkling of his boundaries, or what lurks beyond its little borders.

The first can, with a dose of humility, return to his brilliant beginnings. Perhaps even expand the borders of his influence and have men follow his banner. The second lives too deep in his own imaginings. Quirks of fate could yet wake him.

Having been both these types at various stages of my life, and recovered by fortuitous circumstances that were not all benign, a few words that might help. If only to recover from this malaise or perhaps to put up with one afflicted. Be understanding and tolerant of the first, make them see what lies beyond and things might change. The second might need methods that are either too subtle or cruder than what you are capable of, leave it to the vagaries of time to set things right.

For yourself, choose action that grows the good virtues within. Let these be a reminder of how pride in any accomplishment, when not tempered by humility, can lead you astray. Remember your falls as you march forward.

Inventor, Invention and Intent – Doug Engelbart

Doug Engelbart passed away on July 3rd 2013. The father of the “Mother of all demos“, he was a visionary inventor. In response to obituaries from popular news sites, Brett Victor digs into what tech writers get wrong about Engelbart’s work. Here are some quotes. 

When I read tech writers’ interviews with Engelbart, I imagine these writers interviewing George Orwell, asking in-depth probing questions about his typewriter.

Brett has a point. Tech writers are prone to simplify. Constraints of getting message across to a wider audience, lack of time, or even lack of comprehension all manage to simplify the message to the extent of saying nothing. The point is that the larger motivations of an inventor are drowned out. As Brett so eloquently states,

This is as if you found the person who invented writing, and credited them for inventing the pencil. 

Engelbart’s vision was to build systems that augment human intelligence. And again as Brett states,

Engelbart’s vision, from the beginning, was collaborative. His vision was people working together in a shared intellectual space. His entire system was designed around that intent.

Intent of an inventor is nuanced by necessity. If you read the paper by Engelbart you understand the depth of this thinking. It does take time to explain anything of value. Besides an online journal or tech blog is not usually a place for nuance or depth.

That said, I do understand the constraints of tech writers or journalists. Visitors to their portals don’t have time. The header has to capture attention. The body has to communicate the message as briefly as possible. Attention is a scarce resource.

I face these issues when talking about our product CollabLayer to potential customers. Articulating the proposition, and our intent to amplify collaboration & insight discovery takes a lot of work and time. Reducing it to small sound bites eats away the nuance. Elaborating leaves the customer with too much detail or just plain bored.

I try to understand context and constraints of audience to adapt my pitch. In the last few weeks, my pitch has gotten refined but there is a long long way to go before we can emulate the “Mother of all demos”. Don’t miss that demo, you will learn what a ‘visionary inventor’ means. Check out our baby too. Doug would have understood where we are headed, we hope you check us out and agree too  🙂

Two Perspectives on Leadership

There are as many perspectives on Leadership as there are people. While watching Game of Thrones I could not help but notice the two contrasting approaches to leadership, as embodied by Ned Stark and Joffrey Baratheon.

Joffrey_Baratheon-Throne

Let us start with one extreme. Joffrey Baratheon, kinghood has been conferred upon him by the accident of birth. He knows he has power but does not understand power. He has not paid the price to be crowned, events beyond his control have led him to the throne. But all he sees is power, he does not understand its responsibilities, has no inherent trait of leading and guiding men, no impulse to fairness, no empathy to his subjects. Power he has and he exercises it. With all the smugness of one born to wealth and power, all pleasure and indulgence but no reflection, no self-questioning. His ego has deluded him to attribute his position to his own being.

EddardStark-Throne

In contrast, Ned Stark, Lord of Winterfell, knows he does not belong on the Iron Throne. He does not like, perhaps even despises power. Kinghood to him is a burden. He understands the machinations, the politics, the betrayals that underlie the crown. He lives by his values..brotherhood, family, his people and above all the honor of a warrior. He has strength, is battle-scarred. The burden of responsibility weighs upon his actions. Deliberate and methodical, his actions issue out of him as a craftsman chisels his jewels.

Two contrasting approaches out of the many that are possible to leadership. To be aware of what style one is employing, a recognition of our origins and our destinations and the legacy we wish to be known by are the starting point for grounded leadership.

Good leaders lead not just by the power that resides with their position. They lead with skills, with empathy, with humility. Purpose and principles motivate their actions. They do not look down upon their subjects however high the seat. They understand the ephemerality of power, the transient nature of events.

Through all this good leaders lead. And the bad ones gloat and relish their transient power enroute to their impending downfall.