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The magic of new beginnings

I trust the magic of new beginnings. New beginnings are almost always magical. They often mean new routine, people and places. A skeptic looks at these quite differently, but an optimist always just knows! I am in the latter category. The force of change I have experienced over last few months is simply incredible.

“You are crazy, Abhi!”, Andy said. Care to tell me why? I quipped.

My ex-boss & a great mentor Andy (your identity is safe Andy!) was merely trying to tell me that what I was about to go through are usually the 3 most stressful events in one’s life. Of course they were.

  • Change of career (and an industry) – check
  • Go through having a baby – check
  • Move into a new home – had plans but thought better of it ūüėĄ

Andy was right, it has been stressful, but at the same time most wonderful and memorable few months. Magic of new beginnings doesn’t mean the ride will be stress free. You have got to look on the positive side. On November 25’th, Deepika and I were blessed with a baby boy. Anik our bundle of joy is the best thing to have happened to us. Although for now, he loves to party all night ūüôā talk about following his Dad’s footsteps!

magic of new beginnings

I have been told its normal and like all other things it shall pass. In return, Deepika and I have high expectations of him. 

We would like Anik to invent the “warp drive”!! you know, he needs to experience magic of new beginnings in the stars ūüėÉ

On the career front, I am very grateful to have had a long and successful career with Barclays. Over the years I made a few significant career moves. I had a chance to build some wonderful things for our customers,  as well as contribute to some really cutting edge innovations. I worked with many wonderful people and have grown tremendously as a professional. Moreover, I have been able to count on a few amazing mentors for a word of advise at every crucial step.  I have also made a few friends for life and have learnt many valuable lessons along the way. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and looking back all over those years, I  feel a sense of pride and nostalgia. Barclays will always be near and dear to me. Edit: I am back at Barclays now. The magic of new beginnings also means serendipity and you never knows where your life takes you.

My first 4 months with Vodafone have been amazing. 

An iconic brand sure, but what I didn’t appreciate was its amazing history with over 460+ million customers worldwide. The global scale is just mind-boggling. 

Also, with an ever increasing smartphone base, our mobile app is truly transforming how customers interact with Vodafone. At the outset, it feels like an exciting race between customer expectations and transformation of experience. In last 3 months I visited some Vodafone markets, and plan to visit more this year – very excited by how much opportunity the scale presents. Every country offers a case study for growth and a challenge in commercial strategy. In a nutshell, super interesting stuff!! Andressen Horowitz has a famous quote, “Software is eating the world” and now that has turned into “Mobile is eating the world”. With overwhelming evidence that it is true, obviously I am finding it super interesting being in the “kitchen” here at Vodafone, metaphorically speaking, of-course.

Until next post, I wish you all a wonderful 2017!

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Experiences

The story of joyous blackouts

I assume, few people in the developed world are familiar with the concept of blackouts.

Human brain is quite the genius! Some sights and smells can magically trigger decades old memories in vivid detail; sort of like biological virtual reality!

joyous blackouts
Open flames have magical qualities

So! Last Sunday, the smell of a burning candle magically took me deep down the memory lane. I was a teenager in a typical suburban family. As some of you may know, this time of the year reckons start of the Monsoon season. Especially in western parts of India. Weather changes in a day, from scorching red hot sun to torrential thunderstorms. Many years ago, blackouts in parts of cities were common; especially as the distribution company sought to insure themselves from the storm.

Such evenings would start with  a majestic roaring of the heavy dark clouds. We knew that a thunderstorm followed by a blackout was on its way. The power would go out like clockwork in a few minutes. Me and my sister would race to see who lights the candles in the house. We also had a Kerosene lamp that would burn with a distinctive smell that I love till date! All of a sudden, the TV would stop. All the background sounds of electric appliances would fall silent. Only thing you could hear was nature Рcracking bolts of thunder and the rain. I vividly remember that we stopped doing what we were doing and gathered around the kerosene lamp. Just the 4 of us. Me, my sister and our parents.

We never truly appreciated it, but the time showed an unusual quality of slowing down on such joyous blackouts!

We would intently listen to stories, talk with each other like nothing else mattered. Thankfully, there were no cell phones at the time, even though I always thought ringing of our landline phone during a blackout was nothing short of a miracle. Not once do I remember complaining about the power cuts, unless of course it was during a cricket match! The blackouts lasted a few minutes and sometimes more, but when they were over, everyone went back to their business with a surreal sense of satisfaction!

Why all the nostalgia? Because the blackouts story really makes me think about our present day surroundings and the concept¬†of mindfulness. Let me explain. Nobel laureate psychologist Daniel Kahnemann explains beautifully in his book “Thinking fast and slow” that the human brain has two distinctive personas.

System 1 and system 2. System 1 performs instinctive or well learnt behaviours without spending much mental energy; for instance, driving¬†–¬†you really don‚Äôt have to calculate the angle of incidence of an approaching vehicle to figure out that¬†there will be a collision – you just know! On the contrary system 2 is about¬†applying a conscious deeper mental effort, for instance if I ask you to calculate the time it will take for an object to fall from the Eiffel Tower – you will think. This often involves storing some information in your temporary memory and then manipulating it in order to come to a result. A lot of studies¬†have been carried out on system 1 and system 2. Any details though would be way out of scope of this already long post.

The crux of it is that your brain has a really finite “slow-thinking” capacity, and the more you exhaust it the more likely you are to make cognitive judgement errors.

Google mindfulness. By definition, it asks us to step back and reflect – to pay attention to our thoughts and feelings. I have a theory (based on the story above) that it has become increasingly challenging for us to practice mindfulness because of the information overload. Think about it, you have everything literally screaming for your attention. You wake up and you need to decide whether you want a skinny cappuccino or a latte, you need to open that dreadful device (I am telling you it is the worst offender in this context) your cell phone! You have a thousand notifications waiting from ten thousand apps that you have to think about, respond to.

Imagine how much precious and finite mental energy those WhatsApp chats and meaningless Facebook scroll down gestures take. Then you come to work and are overloaded with a further army of attention seekers. E-mails, messengers, meetings (yes!). You come home and are faced with the same dilemma, with 30 news channels and you need to spend precious slow-thinking time wondering what to watch. Don’t even get me started on Netflix. Do you get the point?

buddha-199462_1280
Mindfulness is about being in the present

Naturally, I feel like we had more mental capacity to practice mindfulness before the advent of satellite television, and modern technology including cell phones.

Yes, its not about blackouts its about mindfulness – use the technology, don’t let technology use you.

Nevertheless  a lot of things can actually help. Meditation, Yoga,  learning to switch off before you hit the bed, and more generally switching off push notifications on your mobile as soon as you think they are becoming a useless distraction. Breaks from the hustle bustle of your city and routine are welcome too of course.

After all we need to be mindful that, the best things about life are our memories and experiences and they are almost always not digital!

A blackout, anyone?

@abhinandanshah

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Experiences

Ethan Hunt and product development

What am I talking about?

Every Mission Impossible movie is incomplete without a formidable villain. Similarly, product development in many large organisations is incomplete without delays. Weird comparison, I know. While there is an entire industry dedicated to making stuff agile, we aren’t nearly there. Watch a great talk on this subject, by Dave Thomas.

I have been talking to a few friends across industries. They agree that the most important metric of product development is how fast you ship. Having great ideas is ok. However, if you don’t ship code fast enough, there is no point. Some people pride themselves on shipping code daily. However, others are lucky if they manage shipping it monthly.

What makes fast product development so difficult?

People use JIRA, DevOps, automation, but speed still underwhelms. I tried to analyse why that is the case. In summary, I list 3 key areas where improvements can be made.They are mainly to do with people. People are everything.

De-layer ruthlessly until you get to a performing product development function.

There are simply too many functions and teams involved. Its not unusual to find that the product owner works in one team, while the developers sit elsewhere. The project manager is borrowed from another function. The BA double hats across projects. The scrum masters are roped in like para-troopers. The product owner never sees the developers. Those are recipes of disaster. It is not always possible for teams to be co-located. However, we cannot allow too many layers between the product, engineering and experience. Moreover, you don’t need to “mobilise” every¬†time.

Make sure that the product manager is technical, and has a good sense of experience design.

A Product manager should be able to converse in technical language. In Tech industry, you wouldn’t find non-technical product managers. A product manager should also understand how software engineering works. This allows a product manager to challenge the right assumptions. It also allows him / her to be empathetic towards the team.

Everyone needs “digital” skills. Period.

Digital for many is a discipline. People proudly say they are a digital product manager. There is no such thing as pure digital skill-set. Have you seen a digital department at Google? The product skills are necessary. However, Digital skills are a must have. You can hire a “Digital PM” but rest assured, it will slow you down. To be clear, Digital functions are immensely valuable. However, pure play digital skills are a thing of the past.

It is a hard to make generalisations. These are just some tips. Some of my suggestions are radical. They will take time to implement. However, for mission impossible you do need an Ethan Hunt. Charm. Wit and Charsima with patience.

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Experiences

Technology Trends in 2015

2015 felt like a year, that was in a hurry to deliver. Why? firstly, boy it flew. I heard this amazing phrase at work the other day that seems so true as I reflect on the year past. Very nicely said.

The days are long, but the years are shorter

However as I recollect my thoughts, I do believe there were many developments that stood out for me. I would like to share them with you.

#1 Fin-tech technology trends are as much hype as an actual disruption.

I have read much about it. Also, I have heard a lot about it from “experts”. I have been experiencing it first hand as well. To put it in a nutshell, there is much more hype to fin-tech than meets the eye. I love bitcoin, blockchain and many other financial technology platforms that hold great promise for the future of financial services. However, lately there has been a steady rise in the fin-tech coverage by all kinds of media. This is amplified by social media where fin-tech influencers are constantly shaping opinion, sharing articles and providing opinions. Many times I have been disappointed by collection of logos, and predictions and articles. These can only be described as clickbait. I sense a hype machine. Perhaps no conspiracy, but that seems to be the hot topic right now.

Tech is not new to financial services.

However, the likes of¬†Google, Facebook have brought massive scale computing to the use of masses. They have done so in a way that puts customers at the centre. It is true that banks haven’t been quick to catch up.¬†Traditionally, what makes the banks so long lived is the customer trust and relationships. These must be extended into the digital world. Fin-tech are clearly trying to capitalise the digital experience differential.

There are some technologies such as blockchain that are capable of fundamentally disrupting money and the business of money. Blockchain de-centralises the transactions and verification of transactions thereby vastly improving integrity of permanence and authenticity. However the technology has failed to garner widespread “trust” so far from the general public. People do not care whether its blockchain or a donkey that carries their FX transaction across the border. What they care about is the trust, speed, convenience. This is not a problem that technology can solve. Building a brand that people can trust can take time, and the new players operating within our industry must be patient, while the established ones should be capitalising their existing “right to play”.

Another key observation I have is that while the fin-tech startups claim to “unbundle” the banks and create a great seamless experience, commercial longevity of such a model could be questioned. The lacklustre revenue growth in many fin-tech startups is a testament to this fact. There is lots of room for innovation however the capital and risk heavy nature of the business isn’t going to change overnight. Its generally been very hard for FinTech to chase profitability.

One thing is granted though, any kind of disruption, perceived or real will force incumbents and new players to think ultimately about the customer. Therefore, in any case the customer will win! that is the best thing about all this.

# 2 Drones, artificial intelligence, and information security have shown  paradigm changing potential as technology trends

Sheer number of drone related products this year has been extraordinary. The regulatory and safety chaos and response that ensued is quite natural as well. While I have struggled to see a real world, highly scaled out and commercial application beyond aerial videos and some gimmickry around drone deliveries, I believe this is one of the technology trends that holds promise in the medium term and we might begin to see some differentiated applications in 2016.

Artificial intelligence has come of age. Granted, there is no “fundamental” progress in terms of solving for the true AI, however deep learning and massive scale distributed computing has opened applications not possible before. Right from Tesla’s auto pilot mode, to google’s translation app (I used it a lot while I was in Brazil) are a proof. The amount of investment and attention that AI will get in 2016 will only go up. I do believe in some doomsday scenarios presented by some luminaries, I think we really need to be careful while dealing with true machine intelligence; human beings could certainly become a casualty here.

Thirdly, can you even recall how many businesses got hacked in 2015? My god, the notion that your information is never truly secure on the internet should be a forgone conclusion! This year I saw a couple startups claiming to offer IT security solutions that even “quantum computers” won’t be able to break. While it may be easy to ridicule the premise of quantum computers breaking the encryption codes; it is not completely outlandish and we all know instinctively that the day is not far away when someone figures out how to break the stuff that has not been broken yet. The industry needs renewed focus on IT security needs to invest in this or be ready to be vulnerable in future.

#3 There are still doubts lingering around the sharing economy model

AirBnB and the issues it has faced with revenue growth & occupancy of the properties on its platform, or Uber and its legal problems galore highlight that the advantage “digital platforms” provide is¬†not necessarily a panacea. You cannot deny the amount of cash¬†the platforms are drawing in, both as investments and revenue. I do worry though as to whats next for these businesses, competition is emerging already like¬†mushrooms, and all over the place. Can¬†competing on price help? how do you differentiate or maintain competitive advantage in the digital age? Everybody seems to be believing in “winner takes all” philosophy; I wonder if that’s the right attitude. This is one of the technology trends I am not really sure about!

#4 Digital music streaming has gone mainstream, finally!

I can’t seem to meet anybody who still sync’s their songs from iTunes. Tale of the times. Hey, despite impressive performance and arrival to the party of Apple Music (Apple’s latest streaming music service), I still prefer the intuitive design of Spotify. Sorry Apple!!

#5 We are all heading “Back to the future”!

It almost seems like we are fast forwarding to the future at an unprecedented rate and scale. Genetics (did you know there are a few high profile startups working on age reversing), food engineering (have you tried synthetic beef yet?), all pervasive fitness trackers (there is one in your iPhone you know), discovery of higgs boson (although scientists are still confused between supersymmetry and parallel universes), rockets that go to space and land back on earth, I mean come on! All this within a year?

I think I will never finish this blog post, but you will agree with me that 2015 has been an amazing year for technology trends and advancement of science. Remember,¬†¬†Maslow’s pyramid talks about self-actualisation. I believe the world is segmented into people who have achieved, all the lower layers of the pyramid and are now trying to push the envelope and there are others who are still dealing with perils of our civilization.

We still have massive problems such as terrorism (is anyone thinking about a tech solution to terrorism?) ; there is global climate change, inequality and disease all over the world. While we have taken some decisive steps in the direction of lasting peace and stemming our climate from boiling over, much more needs doing. I want to leave you with a beautiful picture from one of my travels this year. Look at the serenity and beauty of our world, we need to do more for our mother nature give back more than we take from her.

Wishing everyone a very happy and prosperous 2016!