Companies and products don’t die they become irrelevant and fade away

I have heard from many people that the startup initiative in India has been a failure but no one said why. Below is a list I obtained from a social network about the top reasons why startups fail.

 

Interestingly, a startup company had contacted me few months back asking me if I could be their mentor. Their product is on the lines of Askme.com and they were trying to market it in Kerala, my state in India. The key problem was the people of Kerala are not even fully used to the shopping mall culture yet. We still prefer buying from local grocers, medical shops etc. So searching about products on the internet is still a long way away. My question to the company was, do you know if there is a need for your product in the market you are targeting? They had no clue. This is the top reason on the above list. Lack of proper due diligence. What they wanted from me was to understand how to market their product. I told them that you need to go back to your drawing board and figure out something crucial. Simply putting your product out there is of no use. You cannot force people to use your product. So what can you offer them for using your product? You need a better product strategy before you get on to business strategy and that is where marketing strategy comes in. I haven’t heard from them after that.

Even worse is not understanding when the product is ready to be in the market. Mature companies too have new products and services in their pipeline but what makes and keeps them successful is their ability to time their launches precisely. The extreme of this is Apple launching their products whenever they want to because they have a phenomenal market following. But that’s Apple. There is a concept called Minimum Viable Product (MVP) which can help understand when to stop working on the product and launch it. How do we know this? Work on creating those aspects of the product which could create market disruption or get noticed in the market quickly. When this is successful then it becomes easy. People will take over from there. All we need is to take feedback from customers. Customer expectations will tell us which features of the product are more relevant and need to be out there in the market quickly.

There are two phases of every lifespan be it that of the Universe itself and everything within it. Evolving and maturing. Business also follows the same pattern. A friend is learning to be a professional cake maker and my advice to her was simple. If she is going to bake cakes like everyone else is, she is not going to get far. Evolving stage is the experimenting stage where she needs to mix and match and see what unique she can create. So how will she know she has matured? When customers start calling her for her cakes.

My dad has always loved cooking non-vegetarian food. He looks up on a lot of recipes on the internet but then finds his own niche way of cooking. He has been asking me to help him find a market for his food. He cannot compromise on the quality of the products he uses for cooking which essentially means he cannot target the lower and the lower middle strata of the market. If he tries to sell at those levels, he will have to lower his price thereby lowering his profit margin considerably and moreover there will be very less appreciation among those customers for what they are getting. All of this means the key is in the positioning of the products. Positioning will determine the pricing and marketing strategies.

I believe products and companies become irrelevant and fade away rather than fail. Nokia and Kodak are great examples. Nokia phones became irrelevant when their Symbian OS was run over by Android and iOS. With Kodak, the most fundamental mistake happened. They matured and stopped evolving and got run over by technology. Evolving to maturity shows the growth trajectory of the company or the product. Sustaining and staying relevant in the market demands continuous evolution of another kind. This is where the sheer genius of Steve Jobs shines brightly. In the middle of iMacs and Macbooks and iOS and iPods and iPhones and iTunes, he still found the time and space to figure out that there could be demand for a device that could bridge the gap between the Macbook and the iPhone, thus creating the iPad. I have wondered how tuned his mind was into the world of business and how he used to keep his ears to the ground. He seems to have understood the threat of stagnation and becoming irrelevant which should be the reason why he created such a huge product catalogue and a possibly unknown product pipeline on which he was supposedly working till the time of his demise.

There are great companies and greater leaders to look up to. But ultimately success depends on the course we charter and when we are able to muster the strength, wile and guile and navigate ourselves through the choppy waters of the business world.

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The relationship and disconnect between business and projects

In an interview a few years back for a project management role, the interviewer asked me what project management was. I was taken aback a bit. First of all that’s too generic a question to ask an experienced candidate. Second, project management is such a vast area that it is not possible to explain in a minute or so what it is unless I were to record and playback what is known as industry standard definitions. So I replied that project management is the management of execution of business strategies. The interviewer looked lost for a moment and for a very good reason.

The evolution of the IT industry has created mayhem and consternation in the understanding of business and projects. The mid section of the IT industry has swelled up with managers and is bursting at it’s seams. The hierarchy and designations are complicated and ridiculous. Even more confusing are designations that are total mismatches to the roles. I have worked with the designation of Senior Consultant and the role had got absolutely nothing to do with consulting. Then there are companies with Project Manager designation but the role would be as an individual contributor. What would make sense is that a project would have a team and the manager of the project would also manage the team. The designation of Business Analyst is even more bewildering. Fundamental requirements are to have in-depth knowledge of some software applications.

In one of the case studies during my MBA program I had read about a company whose founder and CEO had approached a venture capitalist (VC) for investment. After due diligence, one of the conditions put forward by the VC was to appoint a new CEO for the company. The founder refused and walked away. Six months later, he came back to the VC and agreed. The VC had wanted him to focus on the products and services his company was offering and let someone else handle the business and financial aspects. So every company has a top management team that walks, talks and breathes only business and money.  It is here that business strategies get created with the objective of better financial outcomes.

I use a simple analogy when talking about business strategies. If I get stamped on my foot, my foot doesn’t cry. The sound comes from my mouth. Similarly if there is a problem in business the red bulb may not necessarily be flashing from the problem area. This is why understanding the business problem is so crucial. Business problem could also be a new venture for the company without proper understanding of moving ahead. Digging deeper into the business problem has direct impact on the quality of business strategy development. But having the best business strategy amounts to nothing without taking action on it and execution of business strategy is a different beast altogether.

One critical aspect of having different functions inside organizations comes into focus during execution of business strategies. The business strategy could have a strategy for the sales team which in turn could result in a strategy for the finance team and so on. Once strategies for different functions are established, then comes their execution. It could be as minimal as a small change without any consequences. But where there are financial outcomes then there would be accompanying risks as well. This is where the whole premise of project kicks in. So projects are essentially execution of business strategies with the objective to create positive financial outcomes. The execution of a business strategy can be broadly visualized as a change management program with several projects managed and executed within its boundaries.

Every project is intended to create a positive financial outcome so I visualize every project manager as having a small cloud of money over his/her head. A senior manager who manages several project managers would then be having an accumulated bigger money cloud over his/her head. Scale this up and the CEO will have the biggest money cloud over his/her head. The divide between creation and execution of business strategies has given rise to the concept of outsourcing. MNCs develop the entire premise of projects before shipping out to their factories and back offices where the projects are executed to create products and services.

Better understanding of business strategies and organizational requirements has a direct bearing on project management. But project managers usually do not get their sights that far and are not expected to stretch their understanding beyond the boundaries of their projects. This is why I believe projects either fail or project outcomes do not result in positive business outcomes. Outsourcing has only complicated and compromised the purpose of projects. A project manager in another corner of the world may not have any idea about the intended outcomes of the business strategies which has given rise to the project he/she is managing. Early in my career I had to resolve a problem with an IT application of a client and according to the SLA with the client I had 3 hours, so I worked on other more important issues. When I finally reported the resolution, the client’s staff lamented about how their work was stuck and the amount of business they lost in those 3 hours. Poor understanding of client’s business environment and requirements coupled with poorer understanding and communication were the reasons.

The relevance and importance of projects and project managers should never be undervalued. In India business degrees are not required to manage and execute projects. This in itself shows the disconnect between business strategies and projects. This is why the growth of project managers gets restricted to the project and program management levels and very few get to break into the top management. This can be observed from how companies hire for executive level positions from other companies rather than their own employees growing through the ranks into those positions.

An interesting social media experiment

It was my birthday last week and a couple of days before the B-day, an idea struck me. I decided to make my birth date visible to only myself on Facebook and LinkedIn. The objective was not to find out who among my friends and contacts would remember my birthday. I did this as a social media experiment to see how many are dependent on social media to wish me. The results weren’t any surprising though.

In India, especially in my state, Kerala, under Hindu tradition there are two birthdays. One, the actual date of birth and the other, the astrological date of birth based on moon signs. In academic and professional circles, the date of birth is considered as birthday whereas in family and community circles the date that falls on the corresponding moon sign is considered as birthday. The moon sign day is considered to be auspicious so the day starts off with an early bath and visit to temples. Then there would be a sumptuous feast in the afternoon. This is how it used to be from childhood so it was a pain to go to school every year on this day. Time has moved on and there are no more such elaborate birthday celebrations especially the sumptuous feast. I prefer to spend my birthdays in peace and quiet because it is the only day in a year when I get to choose what I want to do without interference from anyone.

We can broadly categorise our contacts into friends and acquaintances. Acquaintances are the ones whom we have known for little to short periods of time. From many of our classmates in school or college to most of our colleagues to the people we meet and talk when we are travelling, all of them come under the category of acquaintances. We may or may not be in touch with them constantly and those relationships are mostly need based. We may only know some aspects of each other’s lives and we do not share our private space with each other. Friends on the other hand are just on the opposite polarity of acquaintances which is why our friends list is usually very small compared to the list of acquaintances. It is this decades or even centuries old norm that social media has stirred and shaken up completely.

Internet and social media have empowered us to connect with anyone anywhere across the globe. We can talk and even see each other across time zones through social media now. This is a dream come true for those people who have left their families behind in their own countries and gone abroad to work and it usually used to take weeks to communicate before the advent of mobile phones and social media. Mobile phones eased that difficulty considerably but it’s social media that has shrunk the distances to zero. But something subtle has also happened in the meantime. Our friends and acquaintances lists have all become muddled because everyone is a friend on social media now. We would be communicating more on social media with those people who would have been on our list of acquaintances and with the ones who are our friends, we hardly talk because, well, they are all on social media anyways.

Coming to my birthday, someone from school whom I had never spoken to during school days and became friends with after we became neighbors wished me on both days. Another school mate with whom I became friends comparatively recently wished me in the evening on my date of birth. One friend who goes back to 16 years also wished me. All of these wishes came on Whatsapp. Two friends wished me on Facebook. Another friend whose birthday falls a few days after mine wished me a day before her birthday on Facebook messenger. She had my birthday totally confused. Then there is an ex-manager from a previous job who calls me a day before my birthday because he wants to wish me before everyone else does. These are all the wishes I got. From at least 70-80 wishes on Facebook every year, it reduced to just two.

Rest everyone missed. Not anyone’s fault though. Life in society has become extremely fast paced. We are made to believe in the illusion that technology has made our lives easier but in reality it has not. There is so much to do and learn that we are all struggling to keep pace with the growth in technology. Add to it the growing financial constraints. The financial meltdown of 2008 has changed our lives forever. It is no longer about whether we have time to remember the birthdays of our dear ones. We are mentally spaced out because it has all come down to survival and desperately holding onto our status quo in society. Social media has come in and neatly fitted itself into those gaps in our lives. Facebook shows us birthdays of our friends so it is very easy to drop in a message. But how much value does it have compared to a call or a hand written note? Zero. Why? Because we never thought of them, we just reacted to an externally triggered alert. We do not have time to talk to our families in the morning because we are rushing off to work. So who has come in and taken that space? The RJs on FM channels. Everyone turns on these channels for music while we drive. The RJs smartly conduct their surveys and debates in between the songs they play and we participate wholeheartedly. The RJs are utilizing our need to talk and communicate our thoughts by directing us to certain topics and extracting our responses.

Social media has made us commodities in every sense. It is possible now to send virtual roses on dating sites to people we like. No emotions are required to connect and talk to people which is why we now have social media friends, people who are our friends on social media but whom we have never known before and may not even ever meet in person. And what is social media doing? Collecting every possible information about us and more importantly recording our behavior from every action we take. All of this data helps companies to market and sell their products and services better by dividing us as customer segments and targeting us. Matrimony websites is a great example here. Create our profiles on their websites and they do profile matching based on our preferences. Our focus has been shifted away from what we want from our partner to physical, professional, financial and astrological attributes of random people and we get to see the profiles of those people with whom our preferences and attributes match. Facebook and LinkedIn tells us whom we should connect based on our preferences and activities.

Social media is slowly culling the human touch between us. We are being made to accept that the easiest way to communicate is through social media. For long distance communication or to simply pass on a message or for casual conversation, yes. But to wish a friend in the same country or same place, I would prefer doing it on a call or even meet in person if possible. To all the peeps who have known me for a long time and who didn’t or couldn’t wish me, our relationship is way beyond all social formalities. You know and remember me for a 1000 other reasons so my birthday is no longer at the top of your memory stack which is how it has to be. Social media can only connect people at the physical level. They are trying hard with emojis but nothing can represent or become a substitute for our emotions. I am not going to give up my human conscience and let technology become my representative in exchange for doing things the easier way.

Evolution of consulting industry and takeaways from the world of medicine

There is a popular perception and people have told me that the consulting industry is in regression and getting jobs as consultant has become very difficult. I agree to the second part but I can never agree with the first. Consulting for me is a form of art and an art form will die out only if all the proponents of the art either stop practicing it or if their population becomes extinct.

According to dictionary, consult means to “seek information or advice from (someone, especially an expert or professional)”. This has existed for ages, from the time we became intelligent and moved out of stone age and into agriculture. The best example of this is in the caste based society of India. Each caste is created based on the occupation each person chose and certain number of occupations are grouped under the umbrella of a caste. It’s a completely different aspect that this was used to elevate certain class of people and trod upon the other classes of people to create division in the society, but irrespective of all that, if the services of a blacksmith is needed, only a blacksmith can solve the problem. This is good age-old consulting. The best example though, is that of doctors. Forget caste, creed, religion, skin color, doctors are universally believed to be the Gods on the planet, the ones who can heal the world. If consulting has to die, the entire doctor fraternity has to die and if that happens humanity will become extinct in no time.

So what has changed in consulting? People have become smarter because their knowledge has increased and also because we are becoming more sensible. Someone I know told me that she is constructing a new single storeyed house. I know she has two children so I asked her why and she said they both have grown up and will leave home soon. If they come back to stay at any point in time, let them make the house bigger. This is called being wise and people don’t need someone with the tag of a consultant to advise commonsense. Take the case of the field of medicine and how it has evolved. Natural treatment methods are traditionally based on diagnosing the diseases using the 5 senses of the doctors. But that has evolved considerably with the advances in technology. Diagnosis in any form of treatment is based on X-ray, scan and blood test reports among a slew of methods that exist now. Natural remedies work at the root of diseases to pry them out and it is a time intensive process. It does not make sense to tell someone suffering from severe migraine to keep suffering and wait for natural remedies to start taking effect, now that immediate relief for pain can be found through tablets. So natural treatment methods have changed to the point where the patients are first asked to seek immediate relief through allopathy and then switch to natural remedies for rooting out the problem. So, as a normal person I have also become smarter. First, I get the disease diagnosed that I (or my parents) have, take allopathic medication for immediate relief, look up on the internet to understand the root cause of the disease and then decide on the best course of treatment. Consulting in medicine has evolved. Why? Because there are more options for treatment, more knowledge is available and people have become smarter. This is what has happened in the consulting industry as well.

We can equate doctors with business or IT consultants but how would it be like to equate a consulting company to a hospital? We go to hospitals for diagnosis and treatment. In the world of consulting industry, there are companies that do the diagnosis and companies that do the treatment. Here, diagnosis is done on the basis of business models and the constraints they impose. Then the diagnostic report and their recommendations goes to the companies that do the treatment. If the constraints in the recommendations are not or cannot be imposed correctly, the treatment methods will also not bring the desired results. This is the disease that has been plaguing the consulting industry for a long time. The industry had evolved into two streams, companies that develop strategies and companies that implement strategies. There is a world of difference between conception and implementation. For every construction that is done, be it for house or office space, capital costs shoot up by atleast 20%. It is similar to the difference in book value and market value of a property. This is the area where the consulting industry has taken the hit. The financial meltdown of 2008 and it’s ripple effect in the financial market through the subsequent years has forced companies to go into consolidation mode, which in turn have made them smarter. They have started identifying the problems in their business themselves rather than seek outside help. What they don’t need now is someone doing playback of their problems to them and what they need are 1) Solutions to their problems 2) Successful implementation of those solutions and most importantly they need the execution to be done by a single entity. This means, for example that IT consulting companies can no longer hope to sit back and solve IT related problems only. They have to provide and implement solutions that solve business problems.

This effect has cascaded downstream to the individual level as well. Prospective employees should no longer look at completing under graduation, working for 2 years, taking up a management program and hope to become consultants. Theoretical knowledge will have to be backed up by hard core work experience with proof of contribution at the business level. Even programmers will be expected to demonstrate how the work they are doing has improved the business environment of the clients they are working for. Consultants working for the top consulting companies still have the pedigree but I believe it will not last long. Agile methodology has taken over the world, companies are streamlining their structure and operations and management levels are becoming leaner. Consultants will be expected to build strategies and create plans to implement their strategies and execute them. This is where the role of Consulting Managers will become more prominent in the times to come.

I believe consulting is not just the game about identifying problems and solving them. This can be best exemplified by how natural treatment methods work. The fundamental insight natural treatment methods have is that medicines alone cannot cure diseases. That is why they impose changes in food and lifestyle during the course of the treatment. The keyword here is change. Secondly, how the doctor bonds with the patients actually complements and enhances the effects of the medicines. The keywords here are understanding, empathy and compassion. These doctors become famous by word of mouth alone and the ones who exhibit these critical qualities become more renowned. This is what the consulting industry needs to take away and imbibe from the world of medicine. But now, the situation is at the opposite side of the spectrum. Allopathic treatment does not cure but only suppress diseases. Fever is a sign of the body immunity acting against a foreign substance that has entered our body. Paracetamol tablets only suppress the fever but does nothing against the actual cause of the fever. We live in a world where suppressing a symptom is more important than curing the disease. Patients flock to allopathic doctors who charge more consulting fee under the assumption that more money means better treatment. This is exactly similar to how top consulting companies charge more to provide solutions to clients. I have never understood the logic of more money translating into better or improved results. The business world has started awakening to this absurdity, I don’t know when people will start seeing this for medical treatment. But change is on the way. Information is out that chemotherapy does not cure cancer, chemotherapy doses are made from mustard gas and what can really cure cancer is cannabis. The world is evolving and so will consulting, but there is no cause for alarm, it is not going anywhere.

Employee layoff is organizational consolidation

Layoff is probably the most feared, vile and despised word in the corporate sector. It has synonyms such as getting fired, terminated and getting the pink slip. There is plenty of misconception flying around presently about how IT companies in India are being perceived as abandoning their employees and are dumping them out.

There is an organizational level word for layoff: consolidation. Everything in our world works on the principle of sinusoidal wave. What goes up has to come down and vice versa. When there is more work companies need more people so it is natural that when work becomes less, companies wouldn’t need a lot of people. Up-sizing and downsizing are cyclical processes followed in every organization. IT is an industry that is particularly vulnerable to this. The entire IT industry thrives on the simple concept that all IT environments can be improved continuously and that is how IT service companies get increasing revenues every year. IT product companies make their bread and butter through software support and licenses. When companies decide to consolidate, the first mantra they adopt is the age old “Don’t fix what ain’t broken” and they apply this first to their IT environment. Companies do consolidation of their environment from time to time and cutting back on employee numbers during this time is not unusual.

There are important reasons why IT companies in India are gearing up to lay off a significant amount of their work force. One, IT companies hire many people anticipating more work to come in the near future and keep them on what is called as bench. A significant bench size is a huge liability for the company because these people are consuming money without generating any money so they are either assigned to whatever projects company gets or are let go from the company. The skill sets and aspirations of people who are assigned to projects may not be in line with the work in the project, so over time the number of unhappy employees increases. These employees have to be either retrained and absorbed into more relevant projects or let go from the company. So two levels of layoffs happen at the base of the corporate pyramid.

Then we get to the middle of the pyramid, the layer of the managers. When more people are hired, more managers are required so what can companies do with managers when people are being let go? Now there are two types of managers in every organization. The ones who join as lateral hires and ones who grow through the ranks of the organization. Where do managers grow from there? The pyramid narrows as we try to ascend it. It’s not just the underperforming managers but the best ones are also at the risk of being let go, for the simple reason that there is no scope for growth in the present organization so they are asked to look for growth elsewhere.

Letting people go is a very painful process, especially when it comes to employees who have been working for companies for many years and even decades. This is why I believe IT industry in India is jinxed and cursed in a way because thousands of people abroad have believed that their jobs were forcefully taken away and given to Indians. Companies avoid letting people go as much as they can unless they are pushed against the wall and are struggling for existence or they find specific reasons to lay off someone. I came across an audio clip recently in which an employee in one of the previous organizations I worked with has recorded her conversation with the HR. She was on bench for 7 months and finally she was assigned to a project in a different location than her current one. She hesitated and asked for more time to search for other opportunities. All companies require their employees to work from different locations if found necessary and it is made as a clause in employee offer letters. That employee had her family in her current location and it was very evident why she hesitated to move out. Irony is, she would have had lapped up the offer if she had been assigned to a foreign location rather than to another location within India. The best way out I believe is to quit the job rather than create a hassle about it. So companies already have built in a way of laying off employees in the offer letters itself if required.

Companies fire people only in extreme circumstances such as sexual harassment, financial irregularities, etc. Then there are companies that put the additional clause of handing the fate of the employees to their managers by giving them the right of termination in the employee offer letters. Being part of the corporate world is no easy game and we have to be well aware of all factors that can possibly affect us to the point of taking away our jobs. But I don’t see all badly about companies letting people go. The company I mentioned above at one point in time was letting go of people from one building while hiring for the same positions albeit lesser numbers and possibly lesser pay in another building. The Indian IT industry is only shelving up to 15% of it’s workforce which means companies are ready to gamble with the majority 85% which I believe is a huge number and there is no need to panic. I believe layoff is the constant reminder to everyone to retrain themselves continuously and keep themselves relevant enough to continue being part of the industry.

 

 

H1B lottery – beginning of the end of another gold rush?

The din over the H1B saga is growing louder and the accusations against 3 Indian MNCs seem to be a bit over the top. I am not trying to exonerate them in any way, they have indeed played their part in deteriorating the situation, but they are not the only ones involved.

I believe the US government itself has diluted the true purpose of the H1B visa. The objective of the H1B visa is for the American MNCs to recruit and move skilled people from around the world to work from the US. Now which are the companies that fit into the category of American MNCs? Apple, Google, Facebook, IBM, Microsoft, etc.  are the names that first come to mind. Do these companies need to bring in 65,000 people every year from abroad to work for them in the US? Only fresh applicants and the ones whose visas have expired consume the 65,000 visas. The lifespan of the visa is 3 years and at any point in time, 130,000 active visa holders are already out there in the market on top of the 65,000 visas issued in any year. It would be unbelievable to even imagine that American MNCs would bring so many workers into the country every year. What will happen to the employment market for local people? Even then, Bill Gates and many other IT corporate honchos have been openly advocating about increasing the H1B visa numbers. So if the American MNCs are not getting a decent enough piece of the pie, who are the demons gobbling up the visas?

I am a little blurred at the moment with regards to the definition of a MNC. Top American companies have operated in the US for many years before they expanded their presence to other countries. Indian companies operating out of India register their companies in the US and they become MNCs? Is it just that easy? Why is not required that a company needs to have a pedigree and legacy of operating out of its parent country for say, 10 years in a given industry and have documented proof to show that they are a profitable company before they are allowed to set up offices in other countries? Why didn’t the US government set up a different visa quota system for American and foreign MNCs? With due respect to everyone and without any racial discrimination, a company registered in the US solely with the intention of outsourcing work from the US to the native country of the founder/a stakeholder should not be given the status of a MNC. Why didn’t the US government strictly ensure that Indian MNCs pay their foreign workers the same salary as local employees in the US? Indian MNCs have made mountains of money by paying a fraction of the salary of what they should have.

What Theo Negri experienced (http://www.firstpost.com/world/h-1b-whistleblower-theo-negri-on-how-lottery-salaries-are-gamed-by-tcs-infosys-cognizant-3404384.html) and what the real threat to the visa system is does not come from the Indian MNCs though. Indian MNCs ensure that they do enough background verification of the employees before they hire them. But there are plenty of devious companies that don’t. They don’t hog visas but the damage they do to the visa system and genuine applicants is enormous. They have offices in the US, they hire people from India on their payroll, take them to the US and contract them out to work for companies there. People have to pay a lot of money to these companies to get the visa and they are tied down for at least 2 years on bond to work on the company’s payroll. Contracting can happen through several intermediate companies with the effect that what employees get in hand as salary becomes very less. It becomes an uphill task for these people to recoup what they spent and break even. These body shopping companies develop excellent knowledge of the US market requirements and they know how to showcase the resume of potential candidates that fit the job requirements. Bloated work experience and skills and even fake certificates are the usual methods these companies use. They even know which cities people should fly to in the US at any given time, where border entry checking would be a bit more lenient.

Indian MNCs have also misused other types of work visas like the L1 and the B1 visa. How did this blatant misuse of the US work visa system continue for so many years? How is it possible that these companies openly flouted the country’s labor laws? How do body shopping companies know which city to be used as port of entry? Why did the US government allow the visa system to be manipulated so badly that people with below average skills could enter the country and get employment? There has to be a lot more at play here that is seen. The powerful Indian lobby in the US must have kept the entire visa system at bay by keeping all the stakeholders happy. After all, the money involved here is monstrous. Forget everything else; I was wondering one day about the number of people who might be applying for US visa of any type every single day. They all have to pay visa application fee. Many of the visa applications get rejected as well but the application fee is not reimbursed. How much money is the US government making each day simply from visa application fee from around the world? It is staggering.

With the Green Card as the point of attraction, the world ended up believing that US is the heaven in the new world, just like the people of Europe believed Jerusalem is a land flowing with milk and honey and headed there to start the Crusades. From the time Europeans arrived on the Mayflower and landed on American soil, people have had to toil really hard to make America what she is today. Life is not different anywhere in the world and to come up in life, we have to toil hard no matter where we are. The higher value of the dollar and the status symbol of being in the US is what drive most people in India to the US. It even helps Indian grooms get more beautiful wives and higher dowry. The gold rush had to stop sometime. I saw this coming in the aftermath of the 2008 economic meltdown. I am surprised it lasted so long.

http://www.firstpost.com/world/white-house-h1b-visa-assault-powered-by-indian-origin-professors-research-3412766.html

Is the “Trump”et about to burst the Indian IT bubble?

When Mr. Trump blew his war horn on the outsourcing of jobs from the US, I believe it did not send any major tremors through the market and certainly did not surprise me one bit. I saw this coming way back in 2010 and the fact that it took 6 more years is quite a wonder. It wouldn’t be of any surprise to me either if the accumulated resentment of losing local jobs to foreign professionals start rearing it’s face in the coming times. It is easy to blame Mr. Trump but it is the same resentment that drove people to vote him to power and he has to uphold his poll promise to protect the job interests of fellow Americans.

India has been the chief recipient of most of the IT jobs from the US. In fact, US IT jobs have become the monopoly of Indian MNCs. Not only have these companies set up shops all over the US and are fiercely competing with one another, on the fringe, body shopping companies have sprung up in thousands that hire people and contract out to other companies. This has resulted in Indians swamping the US job market in every possible ways. The US themselves needs to take blame for creating this situation. For the jobs that Indians have been lapping up, a similarly skilled American worker costs 4-5 times what an Indian gets payed. The difference in currency value between the USD and the Indian Rupee has been the biggest reason why outsourcing to India went into overdrive. After recession brought the world market down on it’s knees in 2008 and the supposed turnaround never materialized, it was quite evident that Americans would want to have those jobs back at any cost someday. Just commonsense and matter of time.

Add to this has been the blatant misuse of US work visas by the Indian MNCs. The work visas were designed with the interests of the US MNCs in mind. The objective was to do “brain drain” from India, get the best talents from India and move them to the US with the promise of lucrative jobs, big money and the fancy American lifestyle. The strategy worked big time till the Indian MNCs and contractor companies entered the fray. It was through them that Indian workers started flooding the US market. The strategy of hiring the best Indian talent got lost in the melee. At its zenith, employing people using visas defying the US labour laws and using forged documents and fake experience to get jobs in the US were the common norm. Work permit requirements keep increasing exponentially but visa utilization has been decreasing significantly, primarily because the overhead cost of Indian visa holders who travel to the US are made to be borne by the clients and post the meltdown of 2008, clients are increasingly wary of bearing any additional or unwanted costs. Moreover with the advancement in technology, even knowledge transfer is possible over mediums like Skype. I had thought of joining the exodus to the US briefly, but the main reason that held me back was I did not want to get lost in the midst of average and below average workers and the scamsters.

All of this outsourcing frenzy created a bubble in India called the IT industry. It was the next big thing when I was finishing my engineering and got sucked into the gold rush. When I got into the first outsourced project, it looked a little crazy because after working in IT datacenters, it is difficult to understand how the same work could be done remotely. But lots of work, more money, there were enough reasons to enamor and entice people. It took me a while to remember that all that glitters is not gold. Long hours of work started taking it’s toll on my health. I realized that in the long run, I would have to spend a lot more money on my health that what I was earning. Then, it was the same as driving through heavy traffic. Growth became stagnant and even a crawl became possible only with begging, fighting and most importantly by getting into the good books of the managers and bosses. To top this off there is a huge hidden trap. Get married then take housing loans to buy apartments, car loans and every other possible types of loans, then keep going in circles for the next 20-30 years to pay off the debts. People end up being slaves to the banks and to their jobs and strangle themselves with the debts. Companies are aware of this and treat employees with disdain by paying demeaning salaries and making them do irrelevant jobs which negatively impacts their careers.

Lastly, there is a big underlying problem with the IT industry. IT is another business enabler, just like finance, sales, marketing and other aspects of an organization. The key differentiation is in the fact that IT can be used to improve the functionality of every other aspect of organizations. Financial softwares, CRMs, etc are examples. But IT was never intended to grow beyond the business needs of clients and become an independent industry and it never did. Indian MNCs quickly learned to make more money by extending project timelines and by thrusting improvements and new features to existing software applications and IT infrastructure on to the psyche and budget of clients. The strategy worked but every time a client goes into consolidation mode, spending on IT is the first investment to be stopped. After 2008, this has become increasingly pronounced.

Identifying business problems are like getting kicked on the shin. The shin hurts but the mouth cries out in pain. Business problems require smart, quick and effective solutions. IT cannot solve all business problems but that is how it has been made out to be. IT professionals believe they know how to solve business problems but they invariably speak the language of IT and think in terms of IT. This is what a life in IT does to people. I saw through this early but even after doing MBA, I am finding that some of the IT connections are still wired and are alive in my brain. One of the case studies I learned during MBA was about IT major Infosys trying to foresee their future. One of the strategies they came up with was to invest their huge cash reserve into India’s infrastructure. But ultimately, they chose not to and decided to focus on their existing clients and finding more clients from abroad. For me, this is akin to owning a farmland, not working on it, expecting to find work on the neighbour’s farmland and live off it my whole life. Times change and change is the only constant in the midst of all the chaos of the cosmos. Everyone questioned my logic in leaving the “lucrative” IT industry in 2010 to take up MBA. It has taken 6 years but none other than the President of the United States has answered to my detractors. Not bad at all. Is the Indian IT bubble about to go poof? Only time will tell, but one thing is for sure. Nothing lasts forever and what goes up has to come down sometime. Business needs will be perpetual but IT needs may wane because after all, the sum is always greater than the individual parts.

How Analytics and AI are joining hands to transform our world

The other day, I was in my induction session at IBM’s office when the lady who was conducting the program started talking about how IBM is knocking on new frontiers in the areas of Big Data and Cloud and is developing strategies based on cognitive methods. She introduced us to IBM Watson and how it is being used in oncology to improve cancer research and treatment. The words Big Data, Cloud, analytics and cognitive immediately gelled together in my mind and there I was, staring at how Analytics and AI are joining forces to make our world better.

My first brush with AI was a long time back, during the final year of my engineering course when I did a project on character recognition. It sounded fancy at that time and the team somehow managed to complete the project mainly because it was too much to handle for our young heads. We had to implement machine learning algorithms for weight training the computer based on the principles of back propagation in C language. The objective was to train the computer with different representations of the English alphabets on a definite area of the screen and then make it identify new representations of the alphabets from the information it has gathered through the training process. We had heard only of pattern and sound recognition being done in similar ways so we actually had no clue about the implications of what we had done at that time. This was in 1998-1999.

Fast forward to 2015 when my friend asked me to help him do project management for his startup company. In a nutshell, he explained to me that 1SDK collects data from mobile app marketing campaigns and provides predictive analytics to app owners by running the data through machine learning algorithms. All my senses stood up in interest. I was able to seamlessly put together what he was doing with what I had done in my project. Suddenly I realised that I was actually seeing an industry level implementation of the concepts I had used in my project. For all these years I had wondered how I could have leveraged what I had done in my project and use that knowledge somewhere in a job role. That was the only time I cursed myself for switching from programming to systems and networking. How I wish I could have had rolled up my sleeves and implemented those algorithms in Python.

So when I heard about IBM Watson, one word struck me. Data. The lady said something very relevant, that data is the new and most abundant natural resource. 1SDK is using all the data they are gathering from mobile app advertisement campaigns of each of their clients to provide them predictive analytics in a very drilled down manner, which means 1SDK can look at the predictive analytics results and tell the clients which campaigns run on which days under what circumstances gave them the best results. This is clearly going to define the future of mobile apps and how app owners would want to promote them to the clients. My understanding is, IBM is on the same road with regards to Watson. All available data from cancer treatment and research would get accumulated on IBM’s Cloud from where Big Data analysis would throw out best possible methods of treatment when symptoms and observations for a particular form of cancer is provided as input. What I find more interesting is that, between any two visits of a patient to the hospital, so much data would have come in and more Big Data analysis would have been done on the entire data, a treatment method or medicine more refined or more suited to the patients may have come up, thereby helping doctors provide personalized treatment methods to each patient. All of this fundamentally follows the DIKW (Data->Information->Knowledge->Wisdom) model. Big Data analysis will provide us information from data and using the information creates knowledge and wisdom in us.

There are two aspects to any analytics: user engagement and user retention. More number of patients would want to engage with Watson but question is, would it be possible to retain them with mainstream allopathic treatment methods and medicines alone? This is the area where I would want to watch how Watson would grow. Traditional treatment methods are making a massive comeback around the world. Awareness of the benefits of ancient treatment methods, organic food, leading a healthy life and finding work life balance are becoming top priority for people. Diagnosis of diseases in allopathy is completely dependent on technology whereas traditional treatment methods still rely on human touch for diagnosis. My acupuncture doctor in Shanghai was able to read my pulse and diagnose correctly that I was having cold and fever for the past 3 days. For diagnosis of diseases, I follow the procedures of X-rays, scans and ECGs only to identify/confirm diseases. I always look for traditional treatment methods especially for older people because they no longer have the body strength to endure the ravages that tablets and radiations cause. If Watson’s analytics includes details of traditional methods of diagnosis and treatment as well, then that would truly usher in a new era of battling cancer. Every person’s physical composition is unique be it in the same or different geographies so treatment methods also have to be unique for each patient. I am sure that if all the treatment methods can complement one another, it will be possible to beat cancer in a short time and if Watson can do this job, it would be an innovation of a lifetime.

The exploding universe of mobile apps

The world of mobile apps has become a galaxy of apps in no time but I was completely unaware of it. Being a die hard Nokia fan (for which I get ridiculed sometimes), I tried using a few of Nokia’s smartphone models a few years back, but all the features were a bit overwhelming for me, so I switched back to a basic Nokia model. Mobile phones, for me, are just meant to be phones, to talk and to message. In the past few years, I have watched the meteoric rise of the iPhone and Android phones as Nokia’s firm grip on the mobile world loosened and collapsed. The final nail in the coffin was when Microsoft bought over Nokia’s mobile phones unit. Now I have three options when it comes to smart phones. iPhone which is too expensive, Android phones I am wary of because of performance concerns (open source means apps may not have been made with the same baseline hardware configuration) and Microsoft phones which has Windows and Windows need a bunch of security updates every now and then because Microsoft has never mastered the skill to make a fully stable operating system. Given a choice, I would still buy the Microsoft phones because their hardware was designed by Nokia and Nokia team had tested the Windows operating system thoroughly on those phones. So I am still living blissfully with one of the last Nokia models having the Symbian operating system, but one incident jolted me to reality. I was in Chennai recently and due to the high volume of calls during peak hours (6-10 am and 6-10 pm), all cab service providers are redirecting customers to their mobile apps to book the cabs. Thats when I realized how far and fast mobile apps have penetrated into Indian market.

It is no surprise though. When I was in Shanghai, travelling in metro trains were like spending time in a monastery, albeit with big crowds. Everybody’s necks would be bent down and staring into their mobile phone screens. Some would be watching movies, some would be watching music videos and some would be reading. Can’t really blame the people though. In the early 1980s, when western countries moved manufacturing to China in search of cheap labour, the only thing China asked in return was for transfer of technology. No one even imagined that Chinese people would find ways to use the same technologies to dominate world trade some day. A simple stroll on the streets of Shanghai and there will be atleast a couple of guys who would come around asking if I wanted to buy an iPhone. The phones they have look exactly like an iPhone but only the things Apple has patented like the mobile screen is different. Android, being open source and available for free has fuelled the development of a number of low cost Android phones and together with that, the number of Android app developers have also risen exponentially. For internet crazy people in countries like China and India, buying stuff through their mobile phones makes them look cool and uber. Couple all of this with the rapid penetration of internet into rural areas and there is a silent app revolution going on.

This explosive app industry has astronomically increased the volume of one thing: Data. There is so much data coming through from the apps that companies have sprung up which are trying to analyze the data and find patterns that can help app owners to improve the performance and usability of their apps. Attribution analytics and retention rate analysis are some of the new words buzzing around. Big Data and Hadoop have become job markets by themselves. In-app monetization is another buzzword, which essentially means generating revenue from the apps. The idea is to keep app users engaged with the apps through discounts and reward points so that these users will continue buying things through the apps. Some companies are even going the extra mile to do predictive analytics to give greater insights about the performance of the apps to the app owners. Then there are companies that run marketing campaigns for these apps to understand their popularity among the people and there are companies that advertise these apps in different websites. There is a huge ecosystem that has been created around the app industry and it is growing phenomenally.

Cut a few years back in time and there is a retail giant in the UK for which I worked on one of their projects for a while. They have fabulous stores, lots of space and amazing ambience. They weren’t very keen on ecommerce and selling on the internet so over a period of time, their sales dropped. Then they realised their mistake and invested hugely to set up an ecommerce enabled website. But then, the number of visitors to their stores trickled down rapidly. So the dilemma they had was, how to attract people to their brick and mortar stores and make them feel the experience of regular shopping. One of the few ideas I suggested was to put up video cameras all over the stores so that customers who connect to their website can view the products and interact with the customer service executives. This would give the customers a sense of regular shopping though virtually. Now when I think about buying things through apps on mobile phones I am thinking on similar lines. How to give customers the experience of buying from a real store through the app? Maybe a hologram that represents me walking through an app that represents a real store and use a camera and kinetics to manage the hologram? Wouldn’t that be interesting? I am sensing that this idea is already being worked upon or is already out there in the market but I am not aware of.