Curious case of chasing the sunshine, yet missing the rainbow…

Its been a good summer, wouldn’t you agree? Its funny how I have become obsessed about weather since I moved to London. I have always been amused by the amount of attention weather gets in casual conversations here, but I get it now. In fact, I enjoy moaning about grey days (a LOT) and raving about sunshine (about twice a year :)). Given enough time, I may even flock to the parks all packed with a picnic lunch, and braving the underground with my sunglasses on.

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A Summer Day in London Parks

 

There are scientifically proven links between mood and weather. According to a study, about 27% of people hate summer!? It causes them irritability and general unhappiness. Wait, what? apparently they truly exist. BBC too, recently reported a project trying to measure link between pain and weather. In a nutshell, it is more than conceivable that weather does affect our thoughts. In fact, in some crazy unsubstantiated theories it is even believed that thoughts affect weather. I want to draw your attention to a certain dichotomy of human desires that is represented perfectly in how we perceive weather. On a cold, wet and grey afternoon, we long to see some sunshine whereas on a hot dry and bright summer day, we secretly desire a cold breeze of fresh air. To some extent, it is human nature – we cannot help it!

Undoubtedly, there is a weather system at our workplaces too – right? While leaders do not have the ability to control the weather system outside in the park, they can definitely influence the one at work. A team or an organisation goes through a rough patch every now and then. This winter (sometimes long) can be taxing for your teams. As a leader, you need to provide your team with the warmth of positive affirmation of their accomplishments and you need to provide them with the shelter and safety of your trust. If a leader is trusted, people are rarely insecure with the rough weather. There are times when a team or an organisation is going through a growth spurt, or a “spring”. You must invest more in the team during this period – not only hiring but developing people, skills and their careers. If your best talent feels appreciated, you can be assured of good returns during the “fall”. When success comes, it may feel like “summer” and its time for leaders to reflect on what worked best, and what did not. Leaders should think about how to incorporate this into their plans for next set of seasons. In summary, a great leader can actually be a weather master, allowing positive impact of all situations. John Ruskin puts it beautifully –

Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating; there is really no such thing as bad weather, only different kinds of good weather.

John Ruskin

In my experience, we chase sunshine all our lives but we often forget how beautiful a rainbow is. With the right attitude, we can create the perfect golden sunshine on one side and refreshing rain playing like a joyful child on the other, perhaps that is where amazing colours of life come from?

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Let me know what you think in the comments section.

Do we need a JFK moment in our Space exploration?

May 25th 1961 or precisely 55 years, 3 months and 7 days ago;  in a historic address to the US Congress, President John F Kennedy set an unprecedented goal for a nation. A goal that would challenge, push to the limit and test the very spirit and ambition of mankind. An ambition that not only made the manned lunar missions possible but also unleashed a number of tech advances taken for granted today.

“I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth. No single space project…will be more exciting, or more impressive to mankind, or more important…and none will be so difficult or expensive to accomplish..”

– US President John F Kennedy

Laptops, virtual reality, 3D graphics, modern solar cells, global positioning system – all were a result of this space race. Many decades later, humanity has made great progress in space. However as a space faring civilisation our accomplishments are relatively modest. Modern day visionaries like Elon Musk are working on grand ambitions to get colonies on Mars. Even though the path to get there is laced with failure.  Only today I learnt of Space X’s Falcon vehicle being destroyed, incinerating a new Facebook built satellite with it.

I think funding is a fundamental issue. No country is spending a huge amount of money on Space exploration and with the exception of SpaceX the private space exploration is still very nascent.

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National Space Budgets
I wonder why. See the chart here from Wiki. It is astounding – even NASA, the largest in the pack spends less than 1% of US GDP on space. In comparison, venture capital backed companies received a total of $68 Billion in funding in 2015 in the US alone and… wait for it… the US military defence budget was a whopping $600 Billion in 2015!! That is inconceivable to me. I guess in today’s capitalist world, space exploration does not yield a sufficient ROI. What about second and third order ROI of a much aggressive space exploration policy? JFK had the vision to see these, why don’t we?

I believe as a civilisation we need to set ourselves much bolder goals, and a much stronger vision. We should colonise planets, send out manned deep space missions and invest heavily in space propulsion technology. I know there are many problems on earth, almost too many. It is hard to divert precious time and resources to something that may not have immediate value or applications. However time is witness – inward looking civilisations – however advanced for their time hdbee5e8b800eff204250eb94e59e3aa3ave perished in history books. We have got to be different, we have got to work together and inspire the new generation of scientists, engineers and young citizens. I do believe though that in order for this status-quo to change, we probably need a turning point – it may not be a far fetched imagination that our civilisation will not set our differences aside unless we face a more fundamental reality of our existence in the Universe.

 Lets hope that reality unites us sooner than later. Thanks for reading, and in words of Spock – 

“Live Long… and Prosper”
🙂

 

 

3 Reasons leaders should re-assess diversity within their teams

Have you ever heard of mildly racist mondays? Please do not be concerned🙂 seriously! a hilarious colleague of mine invented this ‘comic theme’ a few months ago.  You basically gather people of at least 3 different nationalities, pick a topic and start debating. Add a dash of millennials to the group and you have a recipe for some genuine fun! The topics often range from the famous Indian head-shakes, to the queue conundrum with the British. The banter is almost therapeutic and very good for team-bonding. In a way, we celebrate and appreciate diversity . As a result, we work better together, trust each other more and are more tolerant towards each others way of thinking. Hey and Mondays do not need a reason to be jazzed-up, right?

Anyway, speaking of diversity, 3 key themes stand out –

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1. Diversity is a multi-dimensional concept

Diversity is not only about nationalities, races, genders and sexual orientations. Diversity can be much more than that. A millennial that does not believe in hierarchy is diversity. An individual that requires as a minimum a strong sense of purpose, is part of diversity too. Moreover in product teams, you may have a designer, an engineer and a marketing person that think very differently. This diversity of thoughts, beliefs, and opinions whilst not legally protected, needs some serious consideration.

2. Culture trumps process – every time!

I believe culture and diversity are joined at the hip. In order to create or maintain great culture, you need to re-assess the importance you give to diversity. Brian Chesky (CEO, AirBnB) puts in aptly in his article – “The culture is what creates the foundation for all future innovation. If you break the culture, you break the machine that creates your products“. The article also implies that strong culture removes the need for arduous processes. It is like doing mental math vs. doing calculations on paper. Mental math is great culture whereas calculations on paper are like processeses – they may achieve the same goal but processes are much slower (in most cases). Great culture means that you can trust people to make the right decisions!

3. Diversity helps avoid cognitive biases thereby improving decision-making

Recently Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in his interview to Sam Altman of Y-Combinator talked about how Facebook places its bets on the future. He highlighted the strong role culture plays in that decision-making, whether it be testing a new ad-format or choosing the next big thing or people to invest-in. Mark’s commitment to diversity is visible from the quote below (17:00 in the clip)

“We invest in people who we think are really talented, even if they haven’t done that thing before – like the CFO who hasn’t taken a company public before – we simply are committed to invest in talented people”

Having the diversity on the team also massively helps in putting checks and balances on the decision-making. This Deloitte University Press article sums it up nicely. It says, diversity of thought leads to the following –

  • Avoiding group-think or expert opinion errors – as you benefit from having all the diverse perspectives on the same problem or solutions
  • Increasing scale of insight – this is something that I have personally experienced in my career .. quality and scale of ideas or ingenious solutions is infinitely better in a diverse team
  • Helps organisations identify the right talent to solve their most pressing issues – imagine having an option to use a broad spectrum anti-biotic as opposed to a single specialised anti-biotic that may or may not work in a bacterial infection (Sorry – for that example ;))

All these can be achieved through – hiring, managing and promoting differently. Please read the dupress article above for more insight.

Okay! now that I have given you 3 reasons to re-assess your understanding of diversity – if you want to learn more about the famous Indian head-shake, please DO NOT ask me. I really don’t know🙂

Premium brands & great customer service – an unending cause and effect cycle?

An impromptu trip to Vienna, Austria began with a – “Thank god they haven’t banned Uber there”. We were traveling Uber style and for the most part it worked like it always does; magic. One of the attractions was a vertical strip of island located on the Danube river – for those familiar with Vienna. We pushed the button for an Uber and a Mercedes Benz E-class pulled over. A suave driver with an exotic accent welcomed us in English, and we were on our way. The GPS was whispering away quietly in German. 20 minutes into the ride we discovered that we were going around in circles for a while. After a discussion with the driver, we decided to drop the plan and go somewhere else. Who’s fault was it? Uber’s? Unsure! Nonetheless, I felt the 26 EUR charge was not justified for the trip. I contacted Uber via the app,  service rep promptly responded with a 20 EUR rebate saying you only pay for “most optimal route”. All done under 20 minutes. No annoying phone line or “Speech recognition”.
Over the years, I remember dealing with Apple Customer Service – 3 times to repair issues with Macbook, 2 times to repair iPhone and once to complain about slightly squeaky headphones. Result? Every time Apple delivered – replacement headphones, replacement iPhones, and wait for it, replacement Macbook motherboards! Good quality? probably not; customer service? Top notch 100%.
I kept wondering why that is, and one of the hypothesis came to mind that it may have to do something with the economics of their business models. We all know Uber charges about 30% commission on the rides, makes them cash rich – I mean its the dream business model, right? We also know Apple probably makes better margin than any other company on their products. Cash rich too. There are lots of reasons why the premium brands are premium however, that would be a much wider topic! So, premium brands have much better margins and therefore can invest in better customer service, thereby increasing the “feel good” factor. This feels like a virtuous circle. What comes first? A premium brand or great customer service? I don’t think there is an easy answer. I think the premium brands such as Uber realise that they want to differentiate not only on the basis of product but also on the basis of customer service, so the margins are alway higher. Perhaps the competition can undercut them on price, but they will find it hard to undercut them on the service with lower margins. For the record, this is a completely untested, un-researched hypothesis. At least at the outset it makes sense though! Tell me what you think in the comments.
As we reach Prague on the train, it reminds me that I don’t have any Koruna’s! Damn… open that Uber app to the Hotel.

The difference between Pokèmon Go & Google’s “inceptionism”

Folks, it is the Pokèmon Go season🙂 are you excited?

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Can someone tell me where does the Pokèmon Go?
Perhaps not?! Ok, tell me one thing honestly. Do you get strange looks from your millennial friends when they find out you haven’t played Pokèmon Go or that you don’t know how to use Snapchat?  well, good news, you are not alone. I will give you in on one more secret. I have never watched the “Game of Thrones”. For whatever its worth, I don’t feel like watching it either.

In the hyperconnected ADHD world, virality is an everyday thing. New fads catch the masses and they spread like wildfire. Profound technology waves however, rarely do so. They start relatively unannounced, and grow like strong forces of nature, very hard to stop. The growth is rarely abrupt. Think – iPhone, social, e-commerce etc. the tweet below is a nice reminder.

 

Artificial intelligence I believe is one such profound technology wave, and it is growing like a strong force of nature devouvoring information, getting smarter and better everyday. We are still in its early days but are beginning to see some really really cool applications. 

A London based company owned by Google called DeepMind we recently learnt  improved the power usage efficiency / PUE of Google’s data centres by 15%. Can you imagine how much money that saves for the company that runs one of the largest data centre ops on the planet? Not too long ago, DeepMind AI became the first to beat a world champion at the infamously difficult game Alpha Go. These are not small developments. On a much larger scale they signify a tectonic shift in the maturity of machine learning. DeepMind algorithms use convoluted learning, more specifically reinforcement learning. In simple words, they learn without specific programming given a goal, they “try to figure the best way” to solve a problem.

 

These relatively specific developments when multiplied by the opportunity scale promises nothing short of a revolution. This one I believe is going to be an “Inside-out” one. Take an industry e.g. aircraft manufacturing, apply deep learning and you have a 15% or even better efficiency in outcomes of a process for instance predictability in ordering of wing parts. Algorithms will let us learn causality like never before by letting these neural networks figure out hidden patterns. There is a good blog post by Google about machine vision visualisation; click the link in the caption below. 

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How a machine sees a painting (credit Google Research)

We are not too far away from an applications of computer vision that once seemed far fetched, for instance looking at your CCTV, your computer might tell you who is on the door before you find out! Ultimately more exciting and probably scary applications will come too. I believe that will take some time, and to my earlier point, highly potent AI has just made an unassuming entrance, now just wait and watch as it turns into an unstoppable force. I will leave you with an image created by convolutional neural networks – this sort of gives us a flavour of how computers “see” or some would say “dream” things. Credit Google Research.

Only if it could teach me how to use Pokèmon Go or Snapchat. Nope, I like being stubborn, I don’t think so.

 So the difference between Pokèmon Go and Google’s inceptionism is that one seems like a fad, and the other seems like a unstoppable tech wave, let’s see where they both lead us. 

Why product leaders should instil & harness “soft-power”

From “dawn to desk”,  we go from task to a user story. Pressing  deadlines, endless kanban boards, life in the post-it lane is not easy. It can be quite stressful, especially when your friends are called grunt, bower, and git.

On a more serious note though, many of us know that product organisations are unique and team dynamic makes or breaks success for everyone. Most product organisations need to operate at the intersection of creative, customer, data, and technology. In other words, diversity is both desired and inevitable. It is worth pausing for a second and thinking about what contributes positively and negatively to this coveted “team dynamic”. I have observed that big words such as empowerment, collaboration, and alignment can be hard to translate on the ground. It ultimately comes down to how everyone on the team really feels. This in my opinion, is highly influenced by the type of power dynamic within the team.

This tweet really sums it up for me. Most of you may be familiar with leadership constructs that rely on hard power.  Even situational leadership talks about “directive” behaviour. You know, where you order, and people follow; there is little room for opinions or discussion.  While that might work in some places, it is definitely a disaster in product teams. Leaders need to remember that using hard power is a one way street.  Interdisciplinary talent, differing skills & personalities is a norm when it comes to building products. Designers, engineers, data scientists, and marketers are all highly qualified & accomplished within their respective areas. As a product leader, you are rarely qualified to tell them how to do their job.  You use directive behaviour, and the first thing the leader loses is respect. Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t mean you don’t hold people accountable or you don’t coach and give feedback it just means that product teams are somewhat different. If a person on the team doesn’t respect you, you get no dedication, commitment and loyalty. The “power trip” you have just had does not help anyone.

There is a secret weapon though…. soft-power! It means influence, or your ability to persuade others without formal authority. This is one of the fundamental tenets of product leadership but very often forgotten. Imagine working on a really complex app, and you need to get your UX designers to create magic. Let us say you want to add an icon to the app to indicate camera functionality. Do you choose an image icon, you choose a camera, or you choose a circle with a red recording button? while it seems like a trivial decision, some product leaders will go on a power trip. They will say this is what I want, it is my way or the highway🙂 this not only creates a potential sub-optimal outcome, it damages relationships in the team. The UX designer may not want to work with you, may stop caring about product that he may have felt passionately about. Product leaders need to recognise that everybody is on the same side! a product leader could instead suggest how they perceive customer goals, listen to ideas, persuade the designer, even give him or her a free leash to go out of the box and seek direct customer input. In my experience the latter option creates amazing outcomes. When given responsibility and freedom to choose, people put their hearts and minds into the task, they will feel a sense of ownership. This style of collaborative working, where a product leader instils and harnesses soft-power in the decision making, fosters a great team dynamic.

Teams are made up of people and not “resources”, success depends on how everyone on the team feels. Product leadership is not only about the “what”, but it is also massively about “how”

 

 

Bot(x+ai) – chat = future? 

You are right, computers aren’t all that smart, not yet. A few real world machine learning   applications have made a debut on our smartphones. For instance, your photos app now recognises that you were with a dog at the park. Google photos and the iOS 10 photos both have similar search and classification features. Another example, is my SwiftKey keyboard; it uses machine learning to vastly improve auto-completion, and next word prediction. So much so, that many times it completes literally whole sentences while typing. Now, that’s pretty great and machine learning has come a long way. So what? we love asking this question and rightly so! Different tech companies have slightly different bets to answer this question. However, there seem to be some underlying themes. For example, Bots as a theme has begun gaining traction a lot recently. Especially since Facebook launched “chatbots” a few months ago.

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Notice the spike in Google Trends for Bots (in RED) in April 2016 when Facebook announced chat bots for developers

Google followed with Duo and Allo, and we know that WeChat has been doing this for a while too. Conversational UI, assistant, chat based commerce and all that is apparently the “next big thing”. But is it? What does experience tell us?  well as Ben Evans nicely puts it in his blog –

Are assistants just a bunch of “if-else-then statements”? see original blog post here (open in a new page)

From my experience of using a Facebook messenger chat bot, it would appear so, it is NOT intelligent. Period. Perhaps one day, it will get there. Oh yes, and there is the Uber integration. Have you heard of a newly launched platform that does not have a sexy means to call you an Uber? Alexa, call me an Uber, Google Home Call me an Uber, Facebook bot, yada yada… Enough with the Uber already. I quite like the concept of chat, don’t get me wrong but as Ben Evan’s blog nicely highlights, the magic dissipates as soon as the algorithm starts asking you too many questions. In the short term though, the fact that my Google photos can figure out my Christo Redeemer photos without me labelling them is definitely magic. It happens without me having to chat with anyone, or without providing any significant user input.

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Google magically finds my Christo Redeemer photos!

So, lets recap. Machine learning is great, but its not so great that it can converse with us and create magic yet.

I believe the real magic is somewhere else and we should not get distracted by the user interface such as chat. As the title of this post suggests, we should rather take a real world problem, let’s say “making a shopping list” and apply machine learning till the algorithm matches or surpasses human abilities at solving for the task. For instance, looking through your regular shopping lists and when you want stuff, can the algorithm automatically predict what you need every other week? That would be awesome. Finally, for gods sake do not chat with the user. Chat requires too much user input and my bet is on applications that make the input invisible real fast. Imagine that our machine learning shopping list app just gently notifies the user his or her auto-populated shopping list. Yes, you can then send it straight to Amazon fresh and order stuff at the push of a button. Simple, right? I know!! I appreciate it is a very hard problem to solve – but in my book it would definitely be magic. I am not the only one to say this, a lot of Silicon Valley pundits say that the next wave of startups would take a problem, and add AI. Thats what I find exciting about the future –

I am happy to be proven wrong, but hopefully we can do away with chatbots until they can truly become magical.

 

Ps. for any VC’s willing to fund my shopping list idea, do reach out at @abhinandanshah or the comments section🙂

For now, bot out…