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Friday, August 10, 2012

The Legal Stuff

10:00 AM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Almost everybody hates the legal stuff. They slow things down, cost a lot and the language...well the language is just awful. I am not sure why lawyers cannot use normal sized comprehensive sentences like other human beings, and what do they have against full stops. I am certain that even many lawyers do not like the labyrinth that is the legal world. However, no matter how much we hate the legal stuff, it is a necessary evil, especially in the world of technology, as is evident in the patent wars. 
Patent Wars
While we might think that creating new products and applications is all nice and creative and does not have to get into the legal mess, the legalities can actually affect your product design, and I recently learned this first hand. 

While working on my product I had initially settled on a backend data provider, and did the mistake of not reading through its legal documentation thoroughly. After integrating the provider with my product, I stumbled upon a legal term of service that highlighted a major constraint. Now, here I did another mistake. Instead of writing to the provider and clarifying/working things out, I just switched to another provider. Because of this, I had to make some changes to my product design as the new provider had its own constraints, which affected the interface and performance of the product. This switching of providers obviously costed me a lot of time and effort. 

Finally I got some sense into myself and approached the original provider clarifying my doubts about some of the terms and constraints, and it turned out that those weren't as bad as I had originally thought and that things could be worked out. I will now be switching back to the original provider - it has been my primary choice for a lot of reasons - and have learnt my lessons. 
  1. ALWAYS READ THE LEGAL STUFF FIRST. While you might want to start with a proof of concept first, make sure you read through the legal terms thoroughly before working on the actual thing. 
  2. If you come across a term or condition that seems to be a constraint, just clarify with the service provider whether it actually means what you think it does, and if it can be worked around/out. 
  3. Make sure that you keep the written proof of your discussions with the service provider. You never know when you might need it - hopefully never.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Every Job Is A Sales Job

12:16 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal 3 comments
All jobs are sales jobs and everyone has to sell. The things that change are how often and how much of selling you have to do. Sales is one common aspect that can be found in every job - from accountant to software engineer to CEO to the Prime Minister of a country. Now, selling does not have to be in exchange for money. You are selling if you are pitching an idea or trying to get someone's buy-in or explaining why you did what you did. You got the idea - everyone sells. 


I have played many roles throughout my career - software developer, project manager, consultant and business developer. The one common thing that I had to do in all these roles was selling - either to my peers or my juniors or senior management or clients. And this is true for all of us. We all sell - at one or the other point in the day. And if you think that you just work on your computer and are not really involved in selling anything, then you are wrong. You might not realize that you are selling, but you certainly are. If your job requires you to be in contact with another human being, then you have got to sell. 

Everyone thinks that their job is important and that others should learn about and understand it as well. Software engineers think that their jobs are very important since software is changing the world and so everyone should learn how to program. Finance guys think that they make the world go round as they deal with the flow of money. HR guys think that they ought to get more importance as people are the most important asset of an organization in this information age. The list can go on and on. However, in my view, sales is the only true horizontal job function, that everyone needs to learn.

Considering the amount of selling all of us have to do, it is a pity how less effort is put into building sales skills in our education system. I am not suggesting that everyone should be turned into a salesman, but considering the importance of sales in our everyday lives, it is an important [life] skill to learn and work upon. I am also not suggesting that we try to build sales skills like the ones of a stereotypical pushy car salesman. I have noticed that the best salesmen are good at human psychology, and I propose that is what we try to learn.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Does Invite-Only Registration Make Sense For Your Product?

5:03 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Lots of tech startups are popping up nowadays launching new products; most of them seem to opt for invite-only registration process. I couldn't help but think if these guys have really thought it through or are they just copying others blindly. While in some cases it does make sense for a product to have invite-only registrations, I do not think that all products need to follow this approach. Before you decide whether such a closed registration process makes sense for your product, you need to analyze its pros and cons. 

PROS
  • I think having invite-only registration works best when you do not really have a working product. It helps you in getting the users even before your [minimal viable] product is ready to be launched and used 
  • We all know that first few releases are full of bugs and problems. Invite-only registrations ensure that only a small number of users get affected with these problems. This helps keep the bad publicity in check
  • Another good reason for an invite-only registration is when your architecture or systems are not robust enough to bear the load of more users. And till the time your application isn't ready, you would prefer to collect the email ids of users instead of turning them away
  • Such registrations can create a shortage of supply and in doing so can help in generating buzz around the product. Having said that I have seen this work better for more famous products. For almost all startups that I know personally, that have implemented this strategy, it did not really help much if at all

CONS
  • The biggest problem that I see with invite-only registrations is that they stop users from reaching out to your product. The fact is that users opened your website or app to see what it does or what it will do. Now instead of showing the product if you ask them for their email id so that you can reach out to them in a few weeks or months, they are going to get disappointed. In addition to that most of the users are not going to want to just share their email id with a stranger just so you could spam them later. They need to see something to share their contact. Quid pro quo. Though I do not have the data to prove this, I think for most products with invite-only registrations actually lead to fewer registrations than if the product had open registration. Sure, the user might get disappointed seeing the early versions of the product. But that is going to happen anyway when all they see is a message asking them to share their email id and come back later. At least in the case of open registrations users will share their email id readily in order to see what the product is all about
  • Look, there are millions of web and mobile apps out there. It is already hard to make someone reach out to your product. Why do you wanna make it even harder by adding invite-only registrations? If you think that if you opt for open registration process users will start rushing in and crash your application, then first of all wake up buddy, you are not that popular, and second of all that is a problem you really want to have. If I have to choose between less users with no applications crashes and more users with application crashes, I will happily go for the latter. Users are generally more forgiving than we think. They understand that new applications have problems. 

The general trend nowadays is to have invite-only registrations for web products. While it does make sense for some new product launches, I believe it actually hurts most of them, making users turn away. I think product managers/entrepreneurs need to think through and make sure that invite-only registrations make sense for their product, instead of following a trend blindly that can cost you your product. Probably, instead of going for one now they should go for it later in the product growth phase or may be never. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Vertical Discovery Engines

4:27 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
The internet is vast. With millions of websites and now hundreds of thousands of apps, there is just too much out there. With so much data and information available on the internet, getting the stuff that you need has been and still is one of the biggest problems of the web. While search engines such as Google and Bing do help us with this discovery problem, they only solve a part of it.
 

The biggest drawback that these search engines have is that they are generic in nature. While these are good at crawling web pages and searching links, they can only do so much. To be more effective these search engines will need to understand domain-specific aspects not just for searching but for consuming as well. This leaves a huge gap to exploit for vertical specific players, not just the existing ones (such as Pandora - and its Music Genome Project - in music, Netflix in movies, and Amazon in books) but new entrants as well. 


Good News For New Players 
While people will always ask new players, "What if Google gets into it?"(to be honest, I think it is a really stupid question to ask in current times), the reality is that it is not easy for a giant such as Google to get into domain specific discovery game. Their technical, infrastructural and cultural baggage does not allow them to change, at least not fast enough. On the other hand,  vertical players can take advantage of their position and help users not just with discovery but close the loop with consumption as well. 
  • Discovery - Vertical players can allow discovery of the entity based on domain specific attributes. For example, in music it can be the song, artists, albums, genres etc. Similarly for deals, it can be location, type, number of people, cost, etc. In addition to that, vertical players are in a much better position to provide answers to search queries, instead of coming back with links to webpages. 
  • Consumption - This is where the vertical players can provide additional value - the cherry on the top - and get far ahead of the generic search players. By providing users to consume the information as well, these players can close the loop. Taking our discovery examples again, in case of music, such engines can allow for listening to songs and downloading them; and for deals, these can allow users to purchase them. 

We can already see growth of vertical discovery engines such as Indeed.com and Kayak.com. While these currently focus on discovery, I will not be surprised if they start closing the loop at their end as well. In fact, Indeed.com has already started doing that by allowing users to not just search jobs but apply for some of them as well. While this certainly does not mean that general search players will fade away, it sure does mean that with growing pool of information and assets on the internet, we will see growth of more vertical engines, that will not just help users with discovery but with consumption as well.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Sources Of Competitive Advantage On The Web

8:35 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , 4 comments
The question "What if Google or Facebook develops something similar?" will be answered very differently today than if it were asked 5 years ago. Today, it is not just Google or Facebook that can do something similar, but hundreds or thousands of other developers, startups, and companies can also pretty much make something exactly similar to what you are doing on the web. 

Sources of competitive advantage in the technology world (particularly web) have changed in the past few years, and, off course, the old sources are very different than the new ones. These changes are much more stark between the Web 1.0 and current web-based companies, and have been pioneered by modern online successes such as Fab, Pinterest, Foursquare and Twitter. Following is a brief of both, old and new, sources of these competitive advantages in the world of internet. 

OLD FACTORS
  • Technology - With the proliferation and adoption of open source technologies and cloud computing - unless you are a company like Google that has some kind of hard to replicate technical IP - technology is no longer a source of competitive advantage anymore. Almost every company has access to similar technologies and platforms, and most of the online initiatives do not require super complex algorithms. 
  • Business Model - Dell was able to get ahead of its established competitors because of its business model. It was revolutionary in its time, so much so that even Apple copied it later. While it worked then, it is rare nowadays for web-based companies to have a strikingly different business model that can be used as a competitive advantage. Pretty much all technology [web-based] companies are using existing business models, where they apply incremental improvements or exploit a niche. 
  • Suppliers and Partners - APIs have revolutionized the whole supplier/partner relationship model. While such relationships are still established and managed the old way for bigger ventures, APIs can allow you to put together a working (and probably scalable) project in order to get started. Some of the reasons for this change are the rising importance [and base] of user data and advancements in data-processing technologies, along with the rise of mashups and app economy. 

NEW FACTORS
  • Design / User Experience - One of the major changes in recent times has been the emergence of design as a key competitive advantage. User-centered design and user experience have been exploited by new companies to differentiate from the incumbents. This has not just led to emergence of beautiful but also powerful desktop-class web applications. Technological improvements in the field of browser technology, cloud computing and mobile computing have helped in design improvements, and players like AirBnB, Fab and Pinterest have leveraged them well. 
  • User Base / Network Effect - Most of the recently successful web companies exploit the social aspect of human nature and leverage the network effects. This has now become one of the most important and hard to replicate competitive advantage for web-based companies. In fact, it has become so important that it is now considered one of the primary factors for valuing early-stage stage and private web-based companies. 
  • Focused Approach - Just because Google or Facebook can develop something, does not mean that they will. And even if they do, that might not sit at the core of their business. And in addition to that, their existing baggage does not allow them to move fast enough as far as new decisions and changes are concerned. On the other hand, smaller companies are much more nimble and focused. Instead of focusing on 10 different things, they have only one thing to worry about, and a small number of people to get onboard for new ideas, which makes them much more nimble than the Googles of this world. 

These are some of the factors that came to my mind; I am sure there are others that have not been captured here. The bottom-line is that the factors that give competitive advantage to organizations on the web have changed drastically. And if you look closely enough, you will observe that these have turned towards softer aspects from their more hard predecessors. I believe these also reflect our growth as economy from manufacturing-oriented to services-oriented one to now a more experience-oriented one.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Responsive Website, Mobile App or Mobile Web?

7:49 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
I have met many people recently who want to leverage the growth in mobile space. For most of them the default way to enter the mobile space is an app. Now while that might be true for some cases, I wonder if they have even thought about other options as well. 

While on one hand, Financial Times has become kind of a poster child for how people can bypass the walled gardens of app stores and still be successful with their mobile HTML5 application; on the other, some people swear by the wonders of responsively designed website. I have been thinking about the options for my own application and thought of capturing some points I have considered for each option in this blog. Please feel free to add or comment on it. (Note that I am considering hybrid and native apps as one - Mobile Applications - because they need to be downloaded from app stores.


Responsive Web Design Mobile Application Mobile Web
PROs
  • Making just one [responsive] website that can perform and look beautiful in all devices (PCs, tablets, TVs and mobile phones) is the ultimate dream, and hopefully we will get there some day

  • Given the various kinds of screens we have nowadays, it is pretty much a no-brainer to have a responsive web design

  • Having a single site for your PCs, tablets, mobiles and TVs, saves a lot of investment (time and money) in device specific design
  • Mobile apps are able to leverage device specific features (such as GPS, offline access and local storage)

  • They provide faster, sleeker and more optimized app experience

  • They can leverage the distribution and payment channels of the app stores
  • A lot of users will try to go to your website at least once before downloading and using the app. TO serve such audience, it makes a lot of sense to have mobile website

  • No sharing of revenue. It's all yours to keep!

  • Single mobile website for all mobile apps. Requires less effort and cost for maintaining the application

  • [HTML5] mobile web apps can leverage some device specific features, such as offline access and local storage
CONs
  • Responsive apps are not able to leverage the capabilities of a mobile applications, and serve the same content to mobile as is meant for a PC, hogging more than required bandwidth

  • No matter how good the concept of responsive design is, the reality is that the way a user interacts with a PC, tablet and mobile phone is different. Bottom line is that, currently, while responsive design might work for basic websites (like for a shop, blog or partnership), it is still a compromise for proper web applications
  • The federated mobile environment means that you need to build an app for each type of mobile OS, which is a costly and time consuming affair

  • Sharing revenue with app stores is one of the biggest and most irritable problems for developers and companies

  • The app store approval process (particularly in iOS) is a big pain for the developers and companies

  • App discovery (with hundreds of thousands of apps published) remains a big problem

  • Danger of vendor-technology lock-in
  • Does not provide access to all device specific features

  • Unable to leverage the advantages provided by an app store (such as distribution and payment systems)

  • HTML5 is still an evolving standard and not all mobile browsers fully support it yet

For some types of apps the decision to go with one of the above options is more obvious than others. For example, for high performance gaming apps a native app is a better choice. For a small pastry shop making a responsive website might be better and cost effective. Whereas, for an app which requires online access, is not into too much into graphics and where revenue sharing is not an option, mobile web is the option to go with. With app discovery still remaining a problem in app stores, I personally do not see much advantage in going with a native app (considering the revenue sharing constraint as well) - as HTML5 web apps are more than sufficient for most of the applications out there. With increasing browser support and developer adoption for HTML5, I am very hopeful that mobile web is the future.

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Experience Graph

Anyone who has read my blogs in the past (here and here) would know that I am a huge proponent of the interest graph. Its potential and advantages for e-commerce are now very well known and exercised by many startups and organizations. 

I have been working on an initiative for some time now, for which I have come across another kind of graph which has proved to be as interesting, if not more, as the interest graph. I call it the Experience Graph. Now before I go further, others have also explored the "experience graph" before me, and while there is no common universal understanding of the term, I believe that there is a lot of agreement in all definitions. 

What Is An Experience Graph? 
Life is full of many small experiences, which can vary from spending a weekend together with family on a camping trip, to a day at Disneyland, to just a walk in the park. It is these experiences that connect us and stay in our memories. The experience graph is a representation of these experiences. While in a social graph, people are connected with other people they know, and in an interest graph people are connected with other people or entities that they find interesting, in an experience graph people are connected with an experience - which in turn connects them with other people that they lived that particular experience with. What makes the experience graph more interesting is that other people might also have lived similar experiences, and yet other set of people might want to live a similar experience in future, allowing new connections to be formed. These properties of the experience graph make it like a hybrid of social and interest graphs. 




Graph Traversal 
Experience graphs - unlike interest graphs - are undirected, and can be traversed in two ways: experience and person. You can traverse an experience graph from an experience and explore all the people that have lived it or want to live it. You can also start the traversal from a person, and explore all the experiences that he or she has lived in the past or wants to live in future. 

Advantages Of Experience Graph 
An interesting property of the experience graph is that it is more active than either of its two counterparts. For example, in an interest graph, the chances of that interest turning into an action are not very bright and the signals can be subtle. Whereas in an experience graph, if you have lived an experience, you have most certainly actioned it, and if you want to live an experience there is a pretty good chance that you will action it in future. This information can be very helpful for e-commerce purposes. Companies can explore an experience graph of a person to find out the experiences he has lived in the past and the experiences that he wants to live in future. Based on this information, more specific messages and products can be targeted towards that user, with higher chances of the user taking an action - a win-win for both the company and the user. 

Actions speak louder than words, which is why an experience graph of a person can prove to be a better tool for self expression than an interest graph. As the experiences are actually lived by that person, the experience graph can provide a more accurate description of him, even better than an interest graph. 

Applications 
While we have established examples of social (Facebook) and interest (Twitter) graphs, there isn't an equivalent one for the experience graph. However, there are many startups that are trying to venture in this area and explore the concept further. In addition to the startups, deals providers are also well positioned to explore the experience graph, after all a deal can be mapped to an experience as well. One way or the other, I am certain that we will soon see an established example of an experience graph. 

There is more research I need to do on this topic, and if you have any thoughts in this area please do feel free to share them.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Experience Oriented Approach To Deals

The SoLoMo (Social+Local+Mobile) game is getting more interesting by the day, specially from the deals perspective. Big boys of the game (Facebook, Yelp, Groupon) have been gearing up for quite some time now, and Foursquare with its new focus on exploration and recent app redesign is looking even more interesting. What I love the most about this whole deals angle to the SoLoMo phenomenon is that it has the power to tap the long tail of local commerce and affect the small shopkeeper/businessman directly - a brilliant case of capitalism with economic and social benefits at the root level. 

I have yet to check out the new Foursquare app, but I find most of the current apps (web + mobile) in the deals space very transactional in nature. I believe that there is a scope of making the whole deal buying experience better, making it less transactional and more humane. 

Now you might be wondering what I mean by making the experience humane and improving it. All deal-based applications can be divided into two main camps: transaction oriented (most of the deal apps fall in this camp) and experience oriented. While transaction oriented applications focus on the discounts and price aspects of the deal, the experience oriented applications focus on user experience and solution aspects. Let me explain these two further with an example. Say a user wants some guitar lessons. If he visits a transaction oriented deals application looking for guitar lessons, he will be shown a few discounted deals with some information and reviews on each one of them. The focus for the transaction-oriented deals app will be to sell the service to user. The spotlight will be on the discount.  

An experience-oriented app, on the other hand, will take a different approach and focus on providing the solution to the user, instead of just selling the service. It will focus on the features, reviews and samples of the guitar class providers, instead of talking about discounts upfront. It will show photos and videos of the facility (almost a given nowadays) along with user testimonials. It might allow you to connect with other user members who have availed the service and ask for feedback. And then, at the end, if you like the service, it will talk about the price and discount (if any). Basically, an experience oriented deals application will try to make sure that you get the best solution for your problem, which in this case is learning how to play guitar. This is how best businesses in the real world work, and I see no reason why this kind of premium service cannot work on the internet. While Facebook (in particular) and Foursquare are some of the best positioned players for providing better experience in buying deals, JetSetter is one of the best examples that I have seen of experience oriented approach to deals.


By focusing on the discount, transaction oriented apps are doing themselves a disservice and actually contributing in making their users fickle. Basically, they are opening themselves to low cost competition. Tomorrow if a new player enters the deal space and provides deals with better discounts, the users will have no qualms switching to that new application. On the other hand, experience oriented applications will be better placed against the competition [as compared to transactional ones], as they focus on providing better options to the user instead of just providing the cheapest ones. Real world businesses have shown us that users are not always after the lowest cost options, and that it is the value and service that matters more to many of them. I firmly believe that this is applicable in the online world as well, and think that we will see a transformation in the deals space with more experience oriented players emerging (or transforming from being transaction oriented).

Sunday, June 03, 2012

The Internet - Exciting Times Ahead

1:14 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Last week KPCB partner Mary Meeker released her Internet Trends 2012 report, and just like her other awesome reports this one is also full of data and insights. The report has highlighted some interesting trends/points which were not covered in the earlier version of the report, such as the monetization dilemma of the mobile platform, re-imagination of nearly all aspects of life and some light on the debate of whether there is a tech bubble or not. This report confirms [with data] what a lot of us are already aware of - we are at the cusp of a tectonic shift in the field of technology and how it affects our lives. Instead of repeating what is in the report, I strongly suggest that all technology enthusiasts should go through it.
KPCB Internet Trends 2012

Can we please put the Tech Bubble debate to rest now? 
One of my favorite parts of this report is the information provided on the recent tech IPOs. The Facebook IPO has shown us that the public markets have not lost their sanity yet, and the hype around tech stocks has largely been restricted to private investors. The fact that pretty much all the star IPOs of recent times, except LinkedIn, have lost their value from opening price, though a bad news for the investors, should help in putting to rest the debate of whether we are witnessing another tech bubble. 
Recent Tech IPOs (source - kpcb.com)

White House going big on technology 
The Layers Of Digital Services (source - whitehouse.gov)
Recently, another event happened that gave a preview of how technology and internet are going to change are lives. On 23rd May 2012, White House issued a press release according to which all federal agencies are required to open up their data so that it is readable by humans as well as machines (through APIs). The US president has issued a few deadlines for this initiative as well, wherein within 90 days the agencies are required to create a page on their website reporting progress in meeting the requirements, and within 12 months they need to implement the requirements of this Digital Strategy initiative. The US government has issued a report with the details of the initiative and the conceptual model of the initiative. This Digital Strategy initiative, if successfully implemented, can enable third-party developers to implement applications that can serve the people of US better and provide a good push into promoting entrepreneurship.   

"This is Day 1 for the Internet...
Reports and initiatives, such as the ones mentioned above, remind me of two extremely powerful and relevant quotes from two of the most influential figures in the world. 

Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com, once famously stated - "This is Day 1 for the Internet. We still have so much to learn". Even today Jeff mentions current time as Day 1 for the internet in his letter to Amazon shareholders, and talks of internet as a largely untapped resource. 

John Doerr, legendary partner of the venture capitalist firm KPCB, once famously said "The Internet is the greatest legal creation of wealth in history…". KPCB launched the iFund (in 2008) and sFund (in 2010) to finance technology initiatives in the field of mobile and social applications respectively. 

All this confirms my belief that while we have achieved a lot in the field of internet, we still have merely scratched the surface of the immense possibilities out there. The incentives for exploring these possibilities are both social and financial. There is still a lot of re-imagination (and implementation) waiting to happen. There are still a lot of exciting times about to come.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Things Corporate IT Can Learn From Technology Startups

9:02 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
It is a pity that even today, in the age of cloud computing, Post-PC era, and mobile revolution, many companies still see technology as mainly a cost factor. When instead of exploring ways that technology can help them propel ahead of their competitors, organizations think of IT as one of the support functions that needs to be cut down as soon as finance markets raise their concerns on the health of the company, you know that something somewhere needs to be changed. Considering that every company is now a software company, it is surprising how leaders in many organizations miss the fact that technology now sits at the core of their business. And even if it does not [sit at the core], when software is eating the world, you certainly do not want to be left standing with the wrong end of the stick. 

The Modern And Third World Divide In Technology 
The technology world seems to be divided into two major camps: the modern world and the third world (not restricted by any geographies). In the modern world, we have startups and companies with high tech agile way of working using modern [open source] tools and processes, small teams and cloud computing resources. In the third world, we have many corporate IT departments, that are still burdened by heavy processes, costly proprietary software support and software licenses, large investments in hardware and big teams. I believe that there is a lot that this third world can learn from its modern counterpart. With the resources that these corporate IT divisions have access to, they can do much better than what they currently are. So what is holding them back? Why is it that a small technology outfit with only a handful of engineers and limited financial resources can build and manage much more complex and advanced technology solutions supporting millions of people, while large corporate IT divisions with larger resources have trouble releasing a single service or application. 

Lessons To Be Learnt 
Advancements in technology and success of small technology firms and startups supporting millions of web and mobile users have brought into light many practices that these companies follow. Following are some of the lessons that I believe cooperate IT divisions can learn from these small and nimble outfits. 

For the rest of the blog I will be using the term CIT for Corporate IT divisions. 

Think Of Yourself As An Engineering Outfit 
While there are a lot of reasons for third world tech outfits to not be able to perform as their modern counterparts, I believe the core of this problem lies in the fact that in many cases these CITs are looked upon as just support functions of a larger organization. So to begin with, there needs to be a shift in mindset. These CITs need to start thinking of themselves as a small technology engineering company (not a support function) with only one customer, i.e. the parent organization. This change in thought process is very important in changing the culture into an engineering driven one, from reactive to proactive, and from support function to a technology partner. 

Agile Development 
One of the key constraints holding back CITs is bureaucracy. Process overload kills innovation, whereas good software development demands iterative development practices and agile work environment. While agile and iterative development practices are not new and there has been a lot of work done on it already, it is surprising how only a few CITs are able to practice it. One of the core reasons in my view for this inability of CITs to practice iterative development again boils down to considering CITs as a cost function, because of which IT and business work in silo-mode breeding an us-versus-them feeling. In addition to that, sometimes many companies choose to go for large/total outsourcing IT contracts. Now, agile development and outsourcing contracts do not go hand in hand, at least not easily. For this combination to work, you need to have good processes understood and established before you outsource the IT function. 

Adopt Cloud Computing 
CITs, like their modern tech counterparts, will need to open up more towards cloud computing. While they have become more open in this area compared to the past, they still need to become more confident about this phenomenon. CITs still invest heavily in buying their own computing infrastructure. Cloud computing can help them in many ways including cutting fixed costs, scaling application resources on demand, and cutting down on infrastructure maintenance. 

Embrace Open Source 
While the modern technology world has adopted the open source full heartedly, its third world counterpart is nowhere near in terms of open source adoption. To be fair, one of the key reasons for this is that these CITs have a lot of legacy applications, whereas open source projects have only recently started to become more robust. The success of online sites, such as Facebook, Twitter and Netflix, supporting multi-million users and running on open source technologies have proven that these technologies can be trusted with for building critical applications. Though these CITs have not been able to use open source technologies in the past, they sure can do so now. However, there is another problem that these CITs face. A lot of open source tools do not come with support contracts, and one of the reason these CITs do not develop using opensource is their affinity to go for tools and technologies that are available in the market for certain period of time, backed by a robust company and proper support contract. Many a times senior IT management is just afraid of putting their neck on line for adopting open source. 

Practice Service Oriented Architecture 
Like many other points suggested here, Service Oriented Architecture (SOA) is not new but it is still surprising how less often it is practiced. SOA, along with cloud computing, can help organizations turn into PROGRAMMABLE ENTERPRISE, where software assets can be accessed as services, leading to minimal operational overhead. Unarguably, the best public example of a programmable enterprise is Amazon, where even new machine instances can be spun off through APIs. 

Increase Collaboration Between Operations & Development Teams 
The last point brings us into another interesting practice of DevOps - where development and operational team work in close collaboration with each other - and its more controversial variant NoOps - where the whole technology infra is run on the cloud and developers take care of all aspects of the application (technically I do not think you will ever be able to work with zero operations team though). Whichever version you vote for, the truth is that currently most CITs are bloated and inefficient as far as resource utilization and organizational structure is concerned, though their senior management generally would not admit it publicly. With operations teams resisting change and developer teams pushing for it, there is a constant tension between these two which generally leads to increased arguments, bureaucracy and an us-versus-them feeling, which kills innovation and rapid development. Which is why it is important to increase collaboration between operations and development teams, no matter how you do it - DevOps, NoOps or XXXOps. 

Hire Full Stack Developers 
CITs consist of specialist teams where developers do not work on databases and application servers, and even depend on QA/test teams to test their application. Similarly, application and database guys cannot/do not play around with OS level aspects. A transition towards DevOps/NoOps can solve this problem, though to make this transition more effective CITs will need to hire more full-stack developers, who know their way around multiple layers of technology and not just have a single area of expertise. This is a departure from previous ways of working in IT where you had dedicated teams to perform a specific part of the software development lifecycle, such as development or testing or deployment. However, tech startups and engineering outfits have shown us that small teams are much more efficient in executing projects. And when you work with small teams, you need to have good generalists in the team instead of specialists, so that anyone can work on any part of the project whenever required. 

While you do hear senior IT management talking about going agile and modern and adopting the points mentioned above all the time, the truth is that on the ground, these CITs are still operating as they had for years. There is a lot these CITs can learn from tech startups and engineering outfits where just a handful of smart people manage applications that serve millions of users. But this learning is not just about tools and technology, it is a lot about culture and leadership as well. You need to have a engineering driven meritocratic culture, where smart people are encouraged to try out new things. You need to have strong leadership where a CTO is not just a guy who suggests the next software package you should buy, but is actively involved in improving the practices, techniques and processes of the CIT. And above all, you need to have strong leader in the parent organization, who understands the value of technology and how it can contribute towards the growth of the organization.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Standardization of Web Experience

7:13 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
Pretty much all mature industries and product-segments have standard user interfaces across different products. This is so not because the industry guys are lazy (although that might be a factor for some) but because standard interfaces make products more intuitive and users' lives easier. Automobile industry is a great example of standardization. All cars have a steering wheel, brakes, gears, accelerator, clutch, etc. If you know how to drive one car, you can pretty much drive any other passenger car in the world. Not much has changed inside (or outside for that matter) a car for decades, except may be the digital systems. However, car makers still find ways to differentiate their brands through design, quality, performance, positioning and price. Computers are another example of standard user interface. The QWERTY keyboard and standard functionality buttons enable users to get going with any PC right away. Software obviously has a big role to play in that, and we all owe a big 'Thank You' to Microsoft for its role in standardizing few key features across all software applications. 

There is a trend you can find out in pretty much any industry or successful product-segment. At first, you will see a plethora of players with their own products specifications, trying to establish themselves as industry standard. This leads to few, if not many, different products with different interfaces, leading to user dissatisfaction. And then eventually we see all products in that segment converging towards commonly agreed or understood standards. Standardization of the user interface (and thus standardization of certain aspects of user experience) takes time, but it does take place when the industry reaches a certain level of maturity. The web is at the cusp of similar user experience standardization. 

Factors For Standardization 
It is not that the web experience does not have any standardized aspects already. Though the standardization of web experience had started long time ago with elements such as banners, menus, buttons and other widgets (along with some carry over from desktop applications' functionality), this time it is different. And there are four primary factors making it different. 
  • First, earlier the standardization was led from a technology perspective, whereas now design and user experience are taking a centre stage in application development and driving the user interface changes. This makes a world of difference as web applications are made more intuitive, beautiful and are centered around human interaction. 
  • Second, with millions of users using web applications such as Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google, pretty much whatever features these applications use become a hit/standard requirement/feature for other applications as well, as the users start to expect similar behavior from other applications as well. For example, users now expect real-time updates without having to reload the whole page overtime. Pinterest is another great example of this trend. Its homepage and pin-board feature have inspired [and in some cases, literally copied by] many other applications across the web. 
  • Third, the whole web 2.0 revolution has led to two-way interaction between humans and web applications, where users actively are contributing to the content creation and curation process. This is very different from earlier (web 1.0) days where users of web applications were primarily passive consumers of content. This is a major factor, not so much from a technology perspective, but from a consumer adoption perspective.
  • And fourth, advancements in client side technologies (browsers and apps) have enabled web applications to provide rich user experience that can rival one provided by any desktop application. 

Tools For Standardization 
The software industry realizes the need for standardization of web experience and has been moving in that direction with open standards such as HTML5 and CSS3. Web software frameworks (such as Twitter Bootstrap and jQuery UI) that standardize cross-browser experience are a hit amongst developers and are now commonly used in many web applications. Twitter Bootstrap in particular is a very interesting framework in that it is not only easy to use and promotes rapid development, but also standardizes the common UI aspects of modern web applications. No wonder it is one of the most popular projects on Github

It Is Inevitable
Developers and vendors realize that while differentiation can be good strategy in many cases it is better to follow the standard conventions. Having said that I am not suggesting that we adopt complete standardization either. That will be too boring, and actually almost impossible to achieve on the web. But standardization to an extent is bound to happen. The four factors mentioned above are going to force us into making applications that are not only richer in experience but also similar in many aspects of application behavior and UI.

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Importance Of Networking

10:40 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal 3 comments
A few years ago if someone would have asked me about the single most important skill I wanted to possess, I would have [rather naively] said marketing or economics or finance. If asked that question again today, I will have to say it is networking. To know people, connect with them and establish rapport is way more important and useful in life than mastering Discounted Cash Flow Valuation, Maslow's hierarchy or the 4 Ps. I wish our education system had realized this too, though, it is still not too late. 

Networking with people is one of the most important and useful life skills one can have. And why is that? Because no one in this world has all the skills and the time to do everything. There will be many times in life (or in a single day for that matter) when you will need to get things done that are not in your control and for which you depend on others. This usually does not bother us, as our work environment shields us from the need to network by providing the required support structure to get our job done (unless you are in business development, though you still have the organization backing you). But step out of that support structure and you will realize the importance of building and managing a network. 

Now just to be clear, by networking I do not mean having 500+ connections on LinkedIn or having a similar number of friends on Facebook, and neither am I suggesting to go on a collect-as-many-business-cards-as-possible frenzy on social meet-ups. By networking I mean having real connections with people, to know more about them, and to connect with them occasionally if not regularly. Now if you can do that with all your 500+ connections on Facebook or LinkedIn, nothing like it!

Technology has come a long way in helping us network better. Research has proven that we do not have one big social network, but actually circles of network with the innermost ones being the strongest. That is where you have your best friends, and as you keep moving towards outer circles the ties keep weakening. In most cases we have a strong network with only 50 or so people, after which connections are more of acquaintances or less than that. Though, apparently, it is the people that we have weaker ties with that end up helping us more with professional activities. 

It is these circles of networks and their varying strength of ties that some social networking applications have been trying to leverage in order to position themselves differently. Path, for example, has been trying to leverage the strength of our inner network. Google+ literally has introduced the concept of circles in its app so that people can arrange their connections as per their choice, while others social apps usually mix all connections (strong or weak). Though, one thing common amongst all these social networking applications is that they are all about connecting with people we already know, and do not really help much reaching out to new ones. This is again where the debate of social versus interest graph comes in, and where interest graphs can be more effective. LinkedIn, Facebook and Google+ are pretty much based on social graph (though they have been trying to tap into interest graph). These applications might not be too helpful in connecting with new people, however, they can help us stay connected with our existing network. 

Even with all sorts of social networking apps around, we are still lacking applications that actually expand our inner circles by initiating online networking and then help in taking these relationships offline (into the real world). Probably a mashup of Facebook, Twitter and Meetup.com in future? But even with all the right technology and applications in the world, networking is a human thing. Our schools and colleges will have to realize the importance of such life skills and help students learn and leverage these. Our educational institutions should increase the emphasis on these skills and incorporate them in exercises and activities, because for most of us these life skills are going to be way more useful and important than Newton's laws on motion (no offense, Sir Issac).

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Execution Speed As Competitive Advantage

11:11 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , No comments
For years we have known that various factors - such as market share, (hard or soft) assets and brand - can contribute towards competitive advantage of companies. We have now also understood that execution (including some of its finer aspects) can add towards competitive advantage of companies. These execution aspects include design, quality and operations. In addition to these, speed of execution can also prove to be a very tangible source of long term competitive advantage.


Successful entrepreneurs and companies have shown us time and again how execution speed (considering product/service quality obviously) can be leveraged as a long term competitive advantage. Successful entrepreneurs are known to be impatient when it comes to delivering projects, and for good reason. Donald Trump used execution speed to his advantage for delivering quality infrastructure projects within time - ahead and better than his competitors. Jeff Bezos got the entire Amazon technology landscape transformed with service-oriented architecture, which led to birth of Amazon Web Services and revolutionized cloud computing. As per one of the articles (more of a rant) by ex-Amazon employees, this transformation just took a couple of years or so in Amazon. Similar enterprise-wide initiatives in normal companies can take at least five years to get implemented and that too get done in shoddy patches. Dhirubhai Ambani, the late Indian billionaire, founder of Reliance Industries, was known for implementing large [industrial] projects with amazing speed that his rivals could not imitate. Speed of execution was one of Dhirubhai's key operational advantages, which also helped him in his rags to riches transformation. 

We have also recently seen some companies take advantage of execution speed in the one of the hottest markets in the world - mobile. Samsung was able to leverage Google Android by quickly releasing mobile phones and tablets in the market, and gaining market and mind share to the extent that it has now surpassed Nokia as the top mobile phone seller. HTC is another vendor that was able to quickly take advantage of this upheaval in mobile market and jump to the front stage, from being phone supplier to other companies for many years. All this happened, while Nokia and RIM were still contemplating their next moves.


I am not saying that in all these examples quoted above - and for many other similar ones - speed was the only factor involved. There obviously were multiple factors present. However, most companies are not able to roll out changes and execute fast enough. They get stuck in meetings, presentations and bureaucracy, because of which many initiatives either get dropped off the radar or take much longer than they should have. In addition to that, this affects employee moral negatively as well. Companies miss out on huge opportunities by not identifying speed as a source of competitive advantage and taking the required steps to speed up decision making and project execution. 

There are a few things that organizations can do to incorporate speed in their DNA. All of these are known commonly known management mantras and revolve around soft issues. 

  • Smaller and Co-located teams - Small teams work effectively. Research has shown that teams of around five members are the most efficient ones. In addition to that, no matter how much advanced technology has become and no matter how web and mobile have changed the way we communicate, the fact of the matter is that these technologies cannot beat the effectiveness and efficiency of a team sitting around a table and working together in the same room. 
  • Direct reporting into a top manager - Bureaucracy kills innovation. If a project manager has to go through loops and bounds to get approvals and agreements for things that are important for a crucial initiative, then you can pretty much count on delay or failure of that project. So one of the most important things required for fast execution of your crucial initiatives is to ensure that the project team and its project manager directly reports into someone from top management. 
  • Agile project management - The field of software has not just given cool and useful applications to this world, but has also contributed to management studies. The complexity and uncertainty associated many software projects cannot be managed with traditional project management principles and requires agile project management. Leading management thinkers have realized the relevance of agile project management in the context of bigger organizational management and have been pushing for adopting agile management on corporate level. Agile management ensures that the project team is quickly and iteratively working on the idea and implementing it, instead of working in a silo, trying to finalize the product and then showing up the completed product after months of effort, only to get it turned down. 
  • Fail fast, fail often - With brainstorming, fast execution and multiple iterations, you are bound to have failures and problems showing up much more often than usual. But the good thing here is that because you are trying out things in small steps and in an iterative fashion, the cost of these failures and mistakes is not going to be that high. But for this to work properly, people have to get rid of that fear of failure, which is off course easier said than done, after all, we are all humans and we all want everyone to love and admire us. Failing fast and failing often, as scary as it sounds, actually does makes a lot of sense economically, as failures down the line end up costing exponentially higher than the ones at the early stages, which might lead to not just slowing down the project but eventually leading to its cancellation as well. 
  • Strong leadership - While all these factors are important to incorporate speed into an organization's ethos, the bleeding obvious fact is that none of this is possible without courageous and strong leadership. And this is probably the least common denominator amongst all companies that have been able to leverage speed as their sustainable competitive advantage. 

While speed just in itself cannot be a source of competitive advantage, when put in together with other factors, it can prove to be the deciding factor. Entrepreneurs and companies that realize this have not just been able to get ahead but also stay ahead of the competition.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Amazon Is Going To Eat The World

9:27 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal No comments
If you ask people to name the most powerful company in technology, I can bet most of them will name Apple, Google or Facebook. These are some of the most successful and sexy technology companies and also favorites of the press and bloggers. But if you dig deeper, beyond the sexiness, you will find that these companies (and their other technology counterparts) are mostly strong in an area or two. For Google that is search (Android is just another gateway for Google to generate more search-based revenue, at least currently), Facebook social networking, Zynga games and so on and so forth. Apple is only company amongst these favorites that is [extremely] strong in more than one area - mobile devices and online stores. There is, however, one company which is not only strong in multiple areas but has also positioned itself well in gaining mind and market share of the consumers and the enterprises. Yes, you guessed it - that's Amazon. 

This is the information age where content and information are king. The value chain for digital content/information starts with the creation of content and ends with its consumption (thanks to social networks, there is now a post-consumption stage of sharing as well). While most of the successful technology companies have created strong holds in one or few aspects of this value chain, Amazon is probably the only company that has strong hold pretty much throughout the value chain (except for the sharing aspect). The company that started as an online bookstore and then moved into general e-commerce, is now also serving content, managing cloud and even providing devices to consume that content. Even Apple is not that well positioned throughout! The company founded by late Steve Jobs is extremely strong in a few areas and average or weak in others. If you overlay Amazon's business activities on top of the information value chain, you will realize the extend of power and influence that Amazon has on this world and its future potential. 

Amazon Value Chain

  • Creation - This is probably the area that Amazon is least strong at. It has been strengthening its position in this area by acquisitions (such as, IMDB and LoveFilm) and initiatives such as Amazon Publishing. By allowing independent/individual authors to publish their own books and bypassing the dependency of publishing houses, Amazon has been able to successfully connect authors directly with the readers, in effect revolutionizing the publishing industry. 
  • Delivery - Well this is Amazon's bread and butter - the area where they have been active from day one. Not only does it have Amazon.com, the world leading e-commerce site, but a plethora of other e-commerce sites such as Zappos, Joyo and Junglee. Using its wide and successful delivery network, Amazon has the potential to reach hundreds of millions of users. The company has strengthened its position in this area further by adding delivery networks (Kindle Store and App Store) for its consumer devices (Kindle and Kindle Fire) as well. It is now taking this a step further and adding delivery network for its cloud services - AWS Marketplace (app store of sorts for cloud software). 
  • Platform - Amazon's ability to envision cloud computing and to deliver that vision is probably the most impressive of all its feats. Not only has Amazon successfully turned its infrastructure (a cost in most companies) into a huge revenue source, it has been able to scale it and add more features at incredible speed. Amazon Cloud has now become the de-facto choice for setting up internet based ventures, for not only startups and SMEs but large enterprises as well. With thousands of companies running their technology infrastructure on Amazon's cloud, the company has become one of the most important entities in enterprise computing. And now with its cloud app store, it is adding more clout to its already dominant position. By enabling and empowering startups and entrepreneurs, Amazon Web Service is also helping the world at a social level (i.e. more companies leading to more jobs). 
  • Consumption - This is the most recent area for Amazon to enter - with which it has pretty much covered the entire content/information value chain. With its Kindle e-reader, Amazon has been able to position itself as one of the leading mobile devices company. The verdict has yet to be out on Kindle Fire; though, early reports seem to reflect positive reviews, considering which, I won't be surprised if it turns out to be the most successful Android tablet as well. 

Being strongly positioned throughout the information value chain is not the only strength of Amazon. The company also has the ability, and loads of practice, of thriving in very low margins - a strategy it has used extremely well for Kindle's dominance of e-reader market - and provide great products. This combination of serving throughout the value chain, providing great products, crucially positioned in both, consumer and enterprise, technology markets, vision and brilliant execution ability makes Amazon arguably the most dangerous player in the technology sector. And while the rest of the players in technology industry are busy suing each other, Amazon is [relatively] quietly working on its expanding its dominance further.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

State Of Online Travel

Online travel is a multi-billion dollar business, contributing nearly a third to the global e-commerce activity. Consumers and businesses in this [online travel] sector, one of the early adopters of internet, have been quick in jumping to the technology bandwagon. However, not much has changed in the sector since the early days. Internet shifted the power in this ecosystem, from the suppliers, to the aggregators and search engines, which brought in more transparency and simplified the process of managing trips. However, since then it has lagged in innovation and still misses a true champion of the users, which can take away the pains of managing end-to-end process of managing travel experiences - from deciding the destination to arranging conveyances and accommodation to preserving post-trip memories - while making it all fun. 

Online travel companies have been mostly focusing on only one part of the overall travel experience - managing conveyance and accommodation. Most of the online travel portals, applications and companies compete in this area. Lately, however, this sector has seen activity from companies which, instead of focusing on the logistics of travel, are focusing on the core reason we travel - to see [new] things; to have new travel experiences. While some of this activity has been done by the established players, the transformation has been largely led by new startups. 


Trip Advisor's Trip Friends is an initiative in that direction. The idea behind Trip Friends is to leverage TripAdvisor's travel database and Facebook's social graph, so that you can get travel advice and reviews from your friends. 


Wanderfly (founded in 2009) is another interesting initiative with a focus on travel experiences, rather the logistics. A travel recommendation engine, Wanderfly taps into existing databases of its partners to provide best recommendations for a trip. 


Trippy (founded in 2011) seems like is pretty much a Pinterest rip-off. At first glance, almost everything about it has been "inspired" or lifted from the famous social networking website. You can pin your favorite travel locations and manage boards. Their "Create Trip" feature is probably the only non-Pinterest-inspired one. 


GTrot (founded in 2009) urges its users to share information about their city. The site seems to be working towards building a database of information on cities. In addition to places, it also allows people to share food, shopping and entertainment related activities.


These initiatives/startups are trying to break the age-old mould of online travel industry and bringing the focus back to the user and travel experience. Having said that, we still lack a truly integrated product that takes care of online travel end-to-end and puts the fun back in trips again.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Sharing and Discovering Experiences

9:02 PM Posted by Deepak Nayal , , No comments
Since the early days of internet, people have been fascinated with its potential to connect humans (and even things) from all over the world. With recent advancements, such as the ones in SoLoMo and cloud computing, that dream has started to take a clear shape now - with a lot of potential to be much more than what it currently is. Based on this premise many industries and areas are still waiting to be disrupted, and of these the one that I found most interesting is that of experiences.


Currently, the experiences market is mostly dominated by the travel industry and the packages that travel agents and companies offer. However, even though these companies and agents talk about experiences they are still pretty much all about booking cars, flights and hotels. You do not go to places to live in a hotel or drive in a car. You go to places to check out new things - to have new experiences. 

There aren't many popular web-based applications around that allow people to discover and book experiences online. Sites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia are more about travel than experiences. Plus, their user interface can be too intimidating for many people. Some of the applications that I have come across that actually allow people to view and book experiences on the web 
(such as Virgin Experience Days and Red Letter Days) do not do a good job in terms of the user experience and design. They still look like web applications from the old world. Because of this absence of good online applications for discovering [and booking] experiences, most of the people take on to Google. The problem, however, here is that Google is a generic search engine. It was designed to discover web pages and links, not life experiences. And while Google's constraint in discovery can be overcome by social networks - where people discover experiences that others have lived and recommended - none of the social networks is looking into experiences in particular. They are all happy being generic platforms for connecting people, making them play games and upload photos of babies and spouses. 

My Two Cents 

I can imagine a good online experience engine to be able to allow people to upload their experiences; discover new experiences based on location, time and budget; connect or follow people who have lived or would like to live similar experiences; follow certain types of experiences so that they can get informed when something new comes up on the radar. In effect a good experience application will be a combination of Google (for search), Facebook and Twitter (for social networking) customized to just serve the experiences

In addition to that, such an experience service has to be driven by design. As startups such as AirBnB and Fab have shown us, good design can be very a powerful differentiator. And you could definitely use some differentiation in an overcrowded, easily imitate-able market such as that of experiences. While good design might seem a luxury at the beginning, it certainly has the potential to be a powerful crowd puller. 


A good online experience application can help people live their lives better, as they will be able to better plan their free time; check out things they can do on the days they are free, or places they can go in the weekends or for vacations. One of the most exciting things about such a service can be that it can introduce people to places and experiences that they have never heard of before, instead of the same old popular destinations everyone knows about. I believe that a good [online] experience application has the potential to really change and improve our real [offline] lives.


[Image from pickthebrain.com]