Subba’s Serendipitous moments

October 28, 2010

Extrapolating the past Vs Inventing the future.

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Leadership,Learning,Perspective,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 10:41 pm
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Vinod Khosla –a co-founder of Sun Microsystems and its first Chairman is a highly respected Silicon Valley investor as the general partner of Kleiner Perkins. Over the last few years, he has moved away from technology to Energy and Greentech.

Yesterday he delivered an interesting talk at Caltech on Extrapolating the past Vs Inventing the future. The talk was peppered with some brilliant statements, some philosophical musings and scenarios for the future. I found the talk scintillating The entire talk can be viewed here. (The audio quality at the beginning of the session is poor quality, but when Vinod begins his talk, the audio quality is excellent)

Here are some of the excerpts:

Extrapolating the past is ridden with mistakes starting from forecasts:

On why forecasts go wrong (he talks about a number of forecasts that’s gone completely haywire:

Assumptions get embedded in our system. We don’t question our assumptions. Forecasting is about our embedded assumptions not explicitly stated.

On quantitative modeling:

Chasing the false precision, chasing the 3rd order effects

Input the measurable, ignore the immeasurable

Obscured embedded assumptions.

He concludes the section after giving several instances by saying that “The more rapid the change, the less likely are the assumptions to be right”.

On why inventing the future is absolutely critical:

He starts by explaining the Black Swan effect giving several examples and declares that much of what we assume to be true is retrospective predictability. Some great statements that he makes:

Improbable doesn’t equal unimportant and the only thing that’s important is the improbable.

No matter where you look, there’s room for innovation, however unlikely it looks

Bring me the ideas that has a 90% chance of failure!

If you take enough shots at the goal, failure doesn’t matter; it doesn’t exist.

“Imagine the possible”.

His final words in response to a question from the audience sums it all: “The talk is just to give a perspective; but most importantly is to convey an attitude”.

Well said, Sir !

October 26, 2010

Ray Ozzie’s new memo to Microsoft

Filed under: Business,Model,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 3:58 pm
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Ray Ozzie is a legend. Bill Gates rated him as one of the five best programmers in the world. Ray created Lotus Notes – the popular email and collaborative workspace solutions in the world. Ray succeeded Bill Gates as the Chief Software Architect when Bill decided to leave Microsoft. He is truly a visionary and I had found his earlier memo The Internet services disruption very interesting

Now as Ray prepares to leave Microsoft, he has penned a farewell memo titled Dawn of a new Day. It makes interested reading as he explains several new shifts about where the “post PC world” is headed.

When I read both the memos I get a feeling that despite the 5 years that he spent there and his exhortation for changing, he hasn’t been effective enough. After his routine praise of Microsoft, he makes a subtle but pointed criticism of Microsoft’s business model when he says:

Yet, for all our great progress, some of the opportunities I laid out in my memo five years ago remain elusive and are yet to be realized.

Certain of our competitors’ products and their rapid advancement & refinement of new usage scenarios have been quite noteworthy. Our early and clear vision notwithstanding, their execution has surpassed our own in mobile experiences, in the seamless fusion of hardware & software & services, and in social networking & myriad new forms of internet-centric social interaction.

There is also a veiled pointer to Microsoft’s seemingly glaring weakness of not being able to conceive the future when he says:

In our industry, if you can imagine something, you can build it.  We at Microsoft know from our common past – even the past five years – that if we know what needs to be done, and if we act decisively, any challenge can be transformed into a significant opportunity.  And so, the first step for each of us is to imagine fearlessly; to dream.

The one irrefutable truth is that in any large organization, any transformation that is to ‘stick’ must emerge from within.  Those on the outside can strongly influence, particularly with their wallets.  Those above are responsible for developing and articulating a compelling vision, eliminating obstacles, prioritizing resources, and generally setting the stage with a principled approach.

But the power and responsibility to truly effect transformation exists in no small part at the edge.  Within those who, led or inspired, feel personally and collectively motivated to make; to act; to do.

In taking the time to read this, most likely it’s you.

At times, it almost seems that he is endorsing Google’s strategy and technology approach.

October 11, 2010

If Google’s search speed is not fast enough, try Instant!

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Learning — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:50 pm
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What does a company that powers 70% of the search market, has over $20 billion in sales relating to search believe the speed of search should be?

Google estimates that a search typically takes the following:

  • 9 seconds to enter
  • 0.8 seconds for data transfers between the data centers
  • 0.3 seconds for processing.
  • The users then spend 15 seconds choosing the link that the search results show up.

If anyone believes that this is a slow performance, Google Instant comes your way. It saves the average user 2-5 seconds per search via instant results, enhanced predictive technology and scroll-to-search functionality.

Google Instant will search at the speed of thought. Or at the speed of serendipity.

If every Google user used Instant, it would save 3.5 billion seconds a day. In other words that is 11 hours saved every second.

Now of all the great engineering prowess that Google deploys to make Google Instant, it is the predictive technology aspect that’s intriguing, deeply unsettling and maybe a big game changer. The search attempts to predict exactly what a user wants, showing the results that it thinks he wants in grey text, allowing him to choose. So, even if a user doesn’t know exactly what he’s looking for, the top prediction is shown in grey text in the search box and the user can stop typing as soon as he sees what he needs.

So, a search is a real time stream enabling the user to see more search results.

It essentially could mean that different people would see different search results for the same query. This could be just the beginning. The search results could again vary depending on the device from where the search is initiated or even by location.

This  means the world of search is just not getting faster, but incredibly complex.

Well, all the marketers and SEO gurus have to change. Sites will need to be optimized for letter combinations, not just complete keywords. This also implies that advertisers will have to purchase more keywords in order to optimize performance. More importantly, Google will gain another revenue stream through ad impressions as currently advertisers are not paying for impressions.

I reckon the compelling reason for this development is that Google’s mobile search traffic grew over 50% in first half of 2010 and 1 in 3 queries from smartphones are seeking information about nearby places. Now mobile users would just like to enter a few characters and choose the query from an autosuggestion list. Right now it is difficult to figure out what this engineering feat of Google Instant will mean in terms of revenues.

And I am not sure whether fast is better than good.

September 7, 2010

Jugaad – National character, national shame.

Filed under: Business,India,Innovation — Subbaraman Iyer @ 7:59 pm
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Following my post on Juggling Jugaad is a dirty joke on India, I received about 12 comments on the blog and 45 emails. One of my friend Ajith Narayanan sent a response and requested that it be carried as a guest post. Ajith is from IIT Chennai and has one of the best engineering brains that I have come across.

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Jugaad is at work when there is single minded focus on the end goal, disregarding everything else that doesn’t contribute. Jugaad is lean and mean efficiency. So far, so good.

But the essential principle of Jugaad is about taking a short cut, cutting corners, not delivering in full measure, and getting away with it.

Jugaad then, is also about disregarding the impact of your actions on others, on the environment, on the common good, on established principles and structures of society, norms and standards and so forth.
Of course, the Jugaadist reaps a reward. Others begin to envy and emulate the Jugaadist.  Eventually Jugaadist thought and action takes root in every sphere.

Small innovations are to be lauded, and Jugaadism may have a role to play in early stage innovation. But, beyond that, Jugaadism is a mental disease, hard to overcome  when a critical percentage of the population has pledged their allegiance to Jugaadism.

When we rely on Jugaad, there is little need or use for principles, standards, guidelines, or best practices whether these be related to engineering, design, human factors, processes, safety, reliability and such, or to natural and procedural justice, fairness, ethics or dignity of the individual.

Jugaad defines our national character.

When our Election Commission ordered the arrest of the EVM researcher who demonstrated that  Electronic Voting machines can be tampered, (http://www.freedom-to-tinker.com/blog/jhalderm/electronic-voting-researcher-arrested-over-anonymous-source  ) wasn’t it taking a short cut ?  The EC found that crying "thief! thief!" and calling in the police was much easier, and rightly Jugaadist, than joining in the debate — on how secure an EVM Indian citizens deserved, and whether the EVM or operational procedures could be improved.  Jugaadism is expedient and has no slack for such diversions. Here you see the EC’s Jugaadism working against innovation. But then, Hari Prasad (the EVM researcher) procured an EVM by "other means" for his research, despite being denied access by the EC, and he did it through Jugaad ! One man’s Jugaad, another’s crime.

When established H1B-dependent body shops (that pay little taxes if at all), faced with visa quotas and resulting curbs on their lucrative slave trade, call protectionists racist ("discriminatory" — which is quite close. Protectionists are protectionists!), and hijack a whole country’s government to fight on its side, it is Jugaadism at work — in a supposedly mature industry.

But when such entities, big and mighty, rely on Jugaadism, something is wrong. Can they be truthful and just ? Can they innovate, in real terms ? Do they have social consciousness ?

Jugaadism also means no rule of law as Anand Giridharadas comes close to observing. The Jugaadist feels no need for any norms.

In my view, Jugaad is functional at primitive stages of development. To celebrate India’s Jugaadism as national character is a shame — but, perhaps we deserve that shame.

August 28, 2010

Another evidence that social phenomenon is growing!

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Strategy — Subbaraman Iyer @ 6:26 pm
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I have been saying everywhere that social is driving business and sharing is the new currency. The evidence is daunting and the photo medium is compelling.

Facebook reports that Facebook photos became the harbinger for everything social. The photo product that we have is maybe five or six times more used than every other product on the web — combined,” Mark Zuckerberg stated at a developer garage event. This is despite the fact that they didn’t have all of the features that their competitors did when they launched the photos section. For example, they didn’t have high-resolution photos and you couldn’t print them. But one thing they did have was the social element — and this changed everything.

Because of the social element, every vertical would be transformed. I agree completely and I wrote about it here , here and here.

 

Will the future search be “social” or “action”?

Filed under: Business,Innovation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 12:15 pm
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The world of search is clearly at an inflexion point. Google has dominated search for so long that it has become synonymous with search.

Yet the search world will be transformed in a radical way even before we realize it. Social search powered by Facebook will be a reality because of social plug-ins. I have absolutely no doubts on that account and wrote about its impact in my blog post here.

There is another aspect of vertical search which surprisingly was ushered in by Microsoft’s Bing. However Google seems to be muscling its way here with its recent acquisitions like ITA software. I think this will be a bigger market and it remains to be seen how Google will integrate the vertical search into its current offerings. This will be an interesting development to watch.

“Action” search will perhaps be a new phenomenon. Esther Dyson in a very thought provoking piece describes the need for action search. I was surprised to learn that “action search” was actually an idea that Bill Gates proposed when he said  “The future of search is verbs.” But he said it at a private dinner and it never spread. How did Microsoft miss this profound idea? This as Esther beautifully describes  represents the world more accurately. And that means better, more meaningful responses when we search.

August 17, 2010

Google wants to find the next winner in search – Maybe Search 2.0!

Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal published an interesting interview with Eric Schmidt – CEO of Google and a great tech visionary. Disclosure: I am a great admirer of Eric Schmidt.

The interview comes at an interesting juncture when Android seems to be on a roll powering 200,000 devices a daily and slated to be the dominant operating system on the mobile platform. Yet, of late, the media has been critical of Google, probably taking the cue from a weak stock price. Add to that the mindshare belongs now to Facebook.

Notwithstanding the negative media reports on Google, Eric in this interview shares several new insights about where Google is headed. Some of his insights and quotes are interesting:

Asked to comment on Android being given free as compared to the fat margins made by Apple he says:

"You get a billion people doing something, there’s lots of ways to make money. Absolutely, trust me. We’ll get lots of money for it."

"In general in technology," he says, "if you own a platform that’s valuable, you can monetize it." Example: Google is obliged to share with Apple search revenue generated by iPhone users. On Android, Google gets to keep 100%.”

That difference alone, says Mr. Schmidt, is more than enough to foot the bill for Android’s continued development.

Google’s real challenge though it dominates the search business:

The real challenge is one not yet on most investors’ minds: how to preserve Google’s franchise in Web advertising, the source of almost all its profits, when "search" is outmoded.

The day is coming when the Google search box—and the activity known as Googling—no longer will be at the center of our online lives. Then what? "We’re trying to figure out what the future of search is."

Now that’s what being visionary is all about – not reacting to Wall Street but figuring out the future before Wall Street has had the chance to position you. Maybe he’s taking the cue from Andy Grove’s philosophy of Only the paranoid survive.

 Google’s intriguing aspect of Search 2.0 can be summed neatly as he says:

"We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are.

Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities of this social search and what its implications could be. In fact, Google is acutely aware that we are on the cusp of a new phenomenon called “Social search” which may be powered by the Facebook phenomena.

Google the creator of targeted advertising believes that it will dominate the category raises the bar:

"The power of individual targeting—the technology will be so good it will be very hard for people to watch or consume something that has not in some sense been tailored for them."

Finally, Eric presents the most intriguing and scary possibility of the future when he says:

"I don’t believe society understands what happens when everything is available, knowable and recorded by everyone all the time," he says. He predicts, apparently seriously, that every young person one day will be entitled automatically to change his or her name on reaching adulthood in order to disown youthful hijinks stored on their friends’ social media sites.

"I mean we really have to think about these things as a society," he adds. "I’m not even talking about the really terrible stuff, terrorism and access to evil things."

Commitments precede choices

Filed under: Business,Learning,Motivation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 4:16 pm
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Clayton Christenson’s address to the graduating class of HBS 2010 had pearls of timeless wisdom. I summarized his address with some comments in my blog post here.

All his wisdom is predicated on one simple and basic premise – that we all know our life’s purpose is known to us apriori. Once that life purpose is known, allocating resources and making trade-off decisions should come about systematically. That’s a well planned life.

But what about situations and people when we do not have enough clarity on the life’s purpose. There is an alternative approach as David Brooks seems to write in this wonderful piece. Thanks to Anand Srinivasan who brought this to my attention.

The starting point here is that life cannot be planned and there are too many unknowns. It is an unknowable landscape with all its interesting twists and turns. Sometimes the life purpose eludes many of us. David calls this the Summoned Life approach.

Here commitments precede choices. Commitments to family, nation, faith, cause etc. These defy many of the standard business metrics like returns, cost-benefit analysis and so on. While we are a product of choices, our deep commitments serve as a useful compass to make the choices.

The person leading the Summoned Life starts with a very concrete situation and most times it starts off with a rude wakeup call.

“At this moment in my life, I am confronted with specific job opportunities and specific options. The important questions are: What are these circumstances summoning me to do? What is needed in this place? What is the most useful social role before me?

These are questions answered primarily by sensitive observation and situational awareness, not calculation and long-range planning.”

David puts this eloquently when he says: “For the person leading the Summoned Life, the individual is small and the context is large. Life comes to a point not when the individual project is complete but when the self dissolves into a larger purpose and cause.”

In the lives that I have observed, both the Well Planned life and the Summoned Life can co-exist peacefully but there is bound to be a creative tension between the two. In my own personal life, the Well Planned life helped me to stay on course and avoid distractions. It gave me anchor and rooted me in values and principles. Trade-off decisions came to me naturally and quickly and I rarely felt paralyzed. But occasionally the Summoned Life due to the situational awareness helped me fine tune the choices based on some of the deep commitments that I myself didn’t know that existed in my consciousness.

July 19, 2010

Google’s App Inventor – philosophically different, pragmatically questionable

Filed under: Business,Competition,Innovation,Perspective — Subbaraman Iyer @ 5:37 pm
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Like many things that come out of Google’s stable, the Android App Inventor is a radical departure from the conventional. It is philosophically aligned to the Google philosophy of open innovation, crowdsourcing and empowering the user. It is a new SDK for the Android platform where there is no programming involved. It is entirely visual in approach and any user can build any application that he wants. The intent is for the user to write an application without being a software developer of sorts.

Google has perhaps decided that it cannot compete with the iPhone’s App store which currently has over 200,000 applications and a complete new ecosystem. Hence it has taken a radically different approach.

One more step in the paradigm shifts between Google and Apple. The earlier ones are written about here.

Apple has created the perfect user experience and the walled garden approach which has it’s detractors. Google has conceded that it can’t create a better user experience. Hence rather than struggle, it has taken the diametrically opposite approach. Any user who creates his own experience by writing his own application is likely to love his own experience, rather than settle for the user experience created by a software developer seems to be the underlying premise. It is thus enabling people to be creative and hence promises to be a platform for the millions, rather than just a platform for the few software developers. Google this enables creativity at an individual level.

Hence it is a philosophically a compelling value proposition. Will it be pragmatic?

All of us know that while we would like to be creative and eat our own dog food, we are also consumers and want the right application with the best user experience. As a consumer it will be more easy to buy and use and not to create and use. The process of creation also involves a lot of trial and error and more importantly failures. How long would someone persevere with the creation process when they see their friend find the right and cool application and using it is also another big issue.

My current conclusion is that while I am all for Google enabling creativity, it may not be a successful strategy.

July 16, 2010

It’s not what you think, but how you think that matters!

 

Clayton Christensen the celebrated Harvard Professor and the guru on innovation speaks to the HBS graduating class of 2010 on how to apply management lessons to personal lives. It is not just an inspiring read, but an instructive read for everyone.

After a preliminary introduction where he establishes with amazing conviction the 30 minute conversation that he had with Andy Grove which led to the development of Celeron, he gives 6 key lessons which should be applicable to all of us.

Create a strategy for your life:

“I promise my students that if they take the time to figure out their life purpose, they’ll look back on it as the most important thing they discovered at HBS. If they don’t figure it out, they will just sail off without a rudder and get buffeted in the very rough seas of life. Clarity about their purpose will trump knowledge of activity-based costing, balanced scorecards, core competence, disruptive innovation, the four Ps, and the five forces”. In my view, the pursuit of purpose surpasses all other pursuits. I learnt this quite late in life.

Allocate your resources:

“People who are driven to excel have this unconscious propensity to under invest in their families and overinvest in their careers—even though intimate and loving relationships with their families are the most powerful and enduring source of happiness.

If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find this predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification. If you look at personal lives through that lens, you’ll see the same stunning and sobering pattern: people allocating fewer and fewer resources to the things they would have once said mattered most”.

Create a culture:

Knowing what tools to wield to elicit the needed cooperation is a critical managerial skill.

Families have cultures, just as companies do. Those cultures can be built consciously or evolve inadvertently.

If you want your kids to have strong self-esteem and confidence that they can solve hard problems, those qualities won’t magically materialize in high school. You have to design them into your family’s culture—and you have to think about this very early on. Like employees, children build self-esteem by doing things that are hard and learning what works.

Avoid the “marginal costs mistake:

It’s easier to hold to your principles 100% of the time than it is to hold to them 98% of the time. If you give in to “just this once,” based on a marginal cost analysis, as some of my former classmates have done, you’ll regret where you end up. You’ve got to define for yourself what you stand for and draw the line in a safe place.

Remember the importance of humility:

If your attitude is that only smarter people have something to teach you, your learning opportunities will be very limited. But if you have a humble eagerness to learn something from everybody, your learning opportunities will be unlimited. Generally, you can be humble only if you feel really good about yourself—and you want to help those around you feel really good about themselves, too.

Choose the right yardstick:

Think about the metric by which your life will be judged, and make a resolution to live every day so that in the end, your life will be judged a success.

My own mid life realizations and some of the life lessons have been written here.

Well, I would strongly recommend that you read his entire lecture as he backs up the brilliant instructions with observations and decisions that he made in his personal life. The entire lecture can be found here.

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