Multi-tasking – Part 2

When I think of multi-tasking, we can borrow ideas from the world of software and operating systems. What we need is a sort of stack and “swap” area where the context of what we were doing when we got interrupted gets saved. That makes it easier to resume after the interruption has been dealt with.

So, when an interruption happens, it is good to take an extra few seconds to save the state of what we were doing/thinking, and then deal with the interruption. It means asking the person who just walked in to wait a few seconds, letting the phone ring a little longer, not hurrying to reply to the SMS, and so on. I have found that if care can be taken to preserve the context, then it is much easier to speed up the resumption and continue from where one had left prior to the interruption.

Keeping a notebook and pen always handy helps in saving the context in multiple scenarios. Also, it helps in making notes of actions that need to be done for the tasks.

So, multi-tasking is going to be a part of life. We just have to figure out our own solutions to become better at it.

Multi-tasking – Part 1

We have all been forced to handle multi-tasking given the nature of modern work – whether we like it or not. Phone ring, SMSes come, Skype messages pop up, emails arrive, people walk in to check on something, and so on. Every study shows that interruptions are not good, and it takes time to get back to what we were doing prior to when the interruption occurred.

So, what’s to be done? I don’t think we can wish away interruptions. They are a part of our daily life now. How much ever we wish for a different era, that is not coming back. So, what we need to do is to see how we can become good at multi-tasking.

We will still need our chunky hours of deep thought when we don’t want interruptions. And we must create that space. But for the most part, we need to figure out how to deal with interruptions and multi-task.

Continued tomorrow.


India’s Changing Political Landscape

It is fascinating how the past few months are changing the political game in India. Many things that were thought improbable are happening.

I think all of this is for good. India needs a much deeper debate – that goes beyond the thin veneer, but probes deeper. We need to discuss the governance models, we need to engage on the best ways to get hundreds of millions people out of poverty, we need to see think hard on how we are going to create tens of millions jobs rapidly for the emerging young workforce, we need to make decisions on how rapidly we are going to build the infrastructure, and so on.

For the most part, we are not getting this. But my feeling is that as the political game shifts and aspirations of people rise, this debate is going to start. And from there will emerge openings for a new language in India’s politics. 2011 will go down as the year that served as the inflexion point for making this happen.

New TRAI regulations on Do Not Call

I have written multiple times in the past about the ill-thought out TRAI guidelines on allegedly combating spam. If ever there was something that was not good for both consumers and businesses, this is one such set of rules. They come into force from today, and I am quite sure they are going to disrupt plenty of people’s lives when they realise a lot of the good things that SMSes did are no longer going to be available to them.

In India, SMS has become a part of the business processes of many organisations – and consequently, a part of life for consumers. Yes, one of the side-effects has been that of spam, as the price of SMS has fallen rapidly, and businesses have realised its utility. At the same time, most consumers have also learnt to deal with the increase in spam. Phone displays have become better showing the senderID and first few words in the message, so it is as easy to ignore as it is to open.

Putting arbitrary constraints on what are important tools for customer engagement and acquisition is just not done.

I have been off the Do Not Call list for 9 months now, and I can assure now there is no problem dealing with the increase in messages (or even calls). The good things SMSes deliver (news updates, alerts, PNR info, movie tickets info, etc.) far outweigh the ‘unsolicited commercial’ messages. My reco: get your number off the list!

Note: I am an interested party because my company offers SMS services to enterprises.

Using Skype

I must be Skype’s nth millionth user! Just started using it a few days ago. And it is quite a utility tool – primarily its IM, file transfer and group interaction capabilities.

I always thought of Skype for the VoIP calls, and since my international calls were not that many, I didn’t bother much about it. When some of the things I was doing necessitated interaction that needed rapid responses and email/sms/calls weren’t the best option, I started using Skype. And was duly impressed by its utility.

Microsoft, having paid $8.5 billion for it, now needs to figure out how to make money from me!

Blog Past: India needs to create a Challenge Portal

From my series on Gov 2.0 a year ago:

India needs to create a Challenge Portal.

Check the US portal. It involves putting out some of the challenges that government departments face, with an offer of reward and recognition. It gets people involved in thinking about the problems the nation faces and gets them to work to solve them.

India needs to do something similar. Every government department has some key challenges. They should put them out on a common portal. This will help capture the imagination of Indians. For the first time, we will have a government actually doing something more than random “open houses” to get citizens and experts involved in thinking together about the problems we face, and then coming up with innovative solutions.

This requires government officials and ministers to have a mindset that they are not the experts in every area, and are not blessed with the wisdom to solve every problem – and there are people out there who are smarter than them. If we can get the Challenge contests going, it will be a great step forward.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • The Social Wars: by Seth Sternberg. “If history’s any guide, the social networks will compete for site distribution through traffic referral and cold, hard cash.”
  • What if the Secret to Success Is Failure? from New York Times Sunday Magazine. “Why our children’s success — and happiness — may depend less on perfect performance than on learning how to deal with failure.”
  • Big Tent called Shveta Chhatra: by Shashi Shekhar in Pioneer. “From Rama to Akbar to Shivaji, the Shveta Chhatra has been a non-theocratic symbol of the sovereign power of the State. The Shveta Chhatra envisioned a ‘Strong Republic’ but with a minimalist Government. From Kautilya to Gandhi and Ambedkar, we see glimpses of that tradition of political thought. It needs to be revived.”
  • EBDITA: A Fred Wilson tutorial. “EBITDA is the pre-tax cash earning power of the business.”
  • Blogging Reinvented: by Om Malik. A short piece, with lots to think over. “The next generation of blogging systems needs to account for the fact that information — and most importantly, conversations — flow via email, Twitter, instant messages and other formats.”

Ideas and Innovations as a Differentiator

During a recent customer meeting, I realised that when talking (pitching), I needed to separate what I saying into two:

  • The first part of what I was selling was effectively a commoditised set of products (email, SMS, etc.). Many other companies could offer the same set of products. Here, our pricing had to be competitive, and there is always some pressure on margins. While we could claim some technological superiority or better service, these would not be enough for us to charge a significant markup as compared to competition.
  • Then, there was a second part to the meeting. Here, we were discussing ideas and innovations -things which could become “gamechangers” for the customer. They were expecting ideas and innovative solutions to solve the challenges they had in both customer acquisition and customer retention (or engagement). Here, there was no discussion on pricing. Budgets were infinite if we could come up with the right solution. Competition wasn’t even talking this language.

I came back and shared these thoughts with my sales team. We needed to do both. But, increasingly, we needed to spend more time on the second – thinking hard about the customer’s business, and how the “Lego blocks” we had could fit together to make a big change for the customer.

Taking Notes in Meetings

I have written about this before, but it is always good to add a few additional points on what I think is a useful personal productivity tool.

I like to make notes in meetings. The notes service five purposes for me:

  • They help me stay focused on the meeting. When I make notes, I am not distracted.
  • I do not have to remember thoughts in sequence. The notes help replay conversations if needed. I can keep the mind free as I listen, and not have to worry about making mental lists as the conversation flows.
  • Often when I am in back-to-back meetings, it is easy to forget the actions that need to be taken after a meeting. The notes work as a short-term reference to ensure that follow-up is done.
  • I find that there are good ideas that come during conversations. So I make a note of them in the same flow of notes. These I prefix with a bulb so I can refer to them later and think more.
  • If I need to refer back to a conversation and the specifics of what was discussed, I now can go back to the notes.

I have been doing this for many years, and find it very useful. My tools: a 240-page spiral book (which lasts about 15-20 days) and a pen.

Board Game Reco: Blokus

Another board game that I picked up during the US trip was Blokus. Like Qwirkle, the learning takes barely a minute. And the game can be played in 20-30 minutes with 2 or 4 players.

Games like these are fun time-fillers, and also make one think differently. They require much less thought that something like Settlers of Catan, which also I like a lot.

Somewhere, amidst all the distractions of TV, computers and mobile, we have lost the joy of playing board games. Games like Catan, Qwirkle, Ticket to Ride and Blokus bring that back.

Quotes in Times of India on Friends of BJP

Times of India had an article (with a fairly stupid headline) last week in which I was quoted:

The FoBJP website says it is a “national movement driven by India’s rising middle class which is BJP-leaning and willing to be vocal about it. It is an associate organization of the BJP and aspires to be a movement that will steer the formation of an effective and efficient government at the Centre.”

FoBJP national convener Rajesh Jain said the organization was engaging the middle class with political change and providing an “alternative centre-right viewpoint”.

As for FoBJP’s position on Hazare, he said they did not take sides. He added that FoBJP’s aim of improving the nation was in sync with Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign. But unlike Anna Hazare’s bid for a new anti-corruption body, Jain said he did not feel the country needed more laws. Jain subscribes to a more centre-right view of governance, which involves less government control and a greater role for the private sector.

Getting to the Goal of Good Governance

I gave a talk last week at a Friends of BJP event at Jai Hind College in Mumbai. Here it is.

It is good to see middle class Indians all charged up and taking action against crooked politicians and corruption. But first, we need to understand what we are fighting for. What is our goal and what are the ways to get to that goal?

As I see it, the ultimate goal is a prosperous India in which every citizen has the means to live free from poverty. Good governance is the most important means of India’s prosperity. Good governance, in turn, depends on good people in government. We are ultimately in charge because we elect those who form our government.

There are at least two paths to get to this goal. One approach, as is being demonstrated by Anna Hazare: punish corrupt people and replace them. Unfortunately, the supply of corrupt people is unlimited and other corrupt people will replace them. The Jan Lokpal Bill will not solve the problem because the system which gives us corrupt people remains in place.

Is there an alternate path? Let me propose one.

The real problem in India is a lack of demand for good governance. Ultimately, politics and politicians mirror society. We get what we demand. In India, there hasn’t been a demand for either good people in politics or good governance.

We need to realise also that the change can only happen through the ballot box. As we have seen through the Anna Hazare agitation, there are absolute limits to what civil society can do and tell our legislators.

This is where we in Middle India have to act. Earlier, our numbers were too small and our ability to connect with each other to take collective action was limited. This has changed. We can change the outcome of 175 Lok Sabha constituencies, a third of the total seats because we can act collectively for the greater good.

One way to do this is for urban voters to unite and create voting blocks,  and demand good governance from political parties. This concept has been explained in Atanu Dey’s book “Transforming India”.

There can be other ways. The key point here is that, for the first time in India’s history, people like us – middle class voters — are able and willing to play a role in shaping the country’s future. If we can focus on the right problem, we will come up with the right solution.

The movement to punish the corrupt is a worthy one. But we have to realize that it does not end there. We have to move beyond that and root out corruption by understanding why public corruption exists. The major cause of corruption is bad governance and therefore the solution is good governance. We have to demand good governance and only then we will get it. Our demand will bring about real change which will not only end corruption but help India become prosperous.

This is what Friends of BJP hopes to do through engagement and education.

Blog Past: Cloud, Social, Mobile for Gov 2.0

From my Gov 2.0 series of a year ago:

India needs to leverage the new, emerging technologies of cloud, social and mobile across government.

A combination of cloud computing, social media and mobile technologies promises to make technology implementations faster, better and cheaper, and at the same time more participative and real-time. Many implementations of this are now visible across the US. Some of the early adopters have been various transportation departments across the US. Given the key role of public transport, they are making available real-time data (that was deemed “proprietary” until just a few years ago) accessible via API to developers who are creating an exciting set of applications that provide extremely useful information to the travelling public.

Government in India needs to look at cloud computing quickly and seriously. This will help reduce implementation cost and also provide basic services to all government officials faster.

Something as basic as email must be made available to all government employees – on their own government domain ending in Governments officials using gmail or yahoo for emails is not just embarrassing for a country that prides itself on its IT successes, it is also a matter of security. It is ironic that out of security concerns, they are trying to force Blackberry to install servers in India, but at the same time our government officials are publicly interacting on email platforms outside their control!

Social media will help increase interaction with citizens, while mobile technologies (SMS, mobile Internet, apps) will help drive more real-time data on-demand to people.

Weekend Reading

This week’s links:

  • Social Power and the Coming Corporate Revolution: by  David Kirkpatrick. “Both your customers and your employees have started marching in this burgeoning social media multitude, and you’d better get out of their way—or learn to embrace them.”
  • The New Apple Advantage: by John Gruber. “We’ll give Jobs the credit for the adjectives beautiful, elegant, innovative, and fun. We’ll give Cook the credit for the adjectives affordable, reliable, available, and profitable. Jobs designs them, Cook makes them and sells them.”
  • The War for Good Jobs: by Jim Clifton. “If you were to ask me, from all the world polling Gallup has done for more than 75 years, what would fix the world — what would suddenly create worldwide peace, global wellbeing, and the next extraordinary advancements in human development, I would say the immediate appearance of 1.8 billion jobs — formal jobs.”
  • Why does India have 77 Union Ministers? by Rajeev Mantri and Harsh Gupta. “India needs a leaner government with fewer ministries to dramatically curb corruption and make governance more efficient.”
  • How to make the politically impossible possible: by George Soros. “It takes a crisis to make the politically impossible possible. Under the pressure of a financial crisis the authorities take whatever steps are necessary to hold the system together, but they only do the minimum and that is soon perceived by the financial markets as inadequate. That is how one crisis leads to another. So Europe is condemned to a seemingly unending series of crises. Measures that would have worked if they had been adopted earlier turn out to be inadequate by the time they become politically possible. This is the key to understanding the euro crisis.”

New Laptop Set-up

While in the US, I bought a new laptop – the HP Pavilion dm4. It was available at a good price at Costco, and it was before HP decided to announce its decision to spin-off the PC division.

The laptop itself is a pretty good one, though the engineering on the ports leaves a little to be desired. The USB ports are too tight. In fact, I had to return the first one because I just could not get the USB devices into the ports. The replacement laptop was much better, but in today’s world of precision engineering, these errors are unacceptable.

Setting up the new laptop was a breeze – thanks to the cloud. I had all my data on a external 500 GB Transcend removeable disk. Downloading the necessary apps took less than 30 minutes on the high-speed connection, and I was all set. Even with the cloud, I still like the comfort of having data stored locally. Maybe the next time will be different!

A Liberal Arts Education

As I have looked beyond tech in the past couple years and gotten more involved on working to bring political and policy change in India, I have acutely felt the lack of a liberal arts education. The only economics and stuff I studied was the few Humanities courses in IIT, which we sort-of sleepwalked through. The relevance of it for an engineer was at that time completely lost on me. Combine with that uninspiring teaching and I was put off from the liberal arts for a couple decades. The loss was entirely mine.

I really think we need to emphasise the need for learning liberal arts for every person, irrespective of what discipline one is specialising in. Just take a look at this lecture series from Harvard’s Michael Sandel and you will see the importance of understanding these concepts as part of everyday life.

The principles of freedom, liberty, justice are fundamental to our responsibilities and duties as a citizen and voter. We need to think of creating a series which combines Western and Indian philosophers that each of us can use to re-educate ourselves.

Restaurant Reco: Quattro at Lower Parel in Mumbai

I had dinner the other day at Quattro, which is opposite Phoenix Mills at Lower Parel near the southern end of the flyover. It is an all-veg Italian-Mexican restaurant, with plenty of options for Jain dishes. Its small hole-in-the-wall entrance  is easy to miss. The inside is amazingly large!

The food and presentation was excellent. We ate the pizza, quesidilla, enchilada and tacos. Don’t miss the “cage brownie” – very innovative in its looks.

A good addition to central Mumbai’s restaurants!

Flying Emirates

I took Emirates from Mumbai to San Francisco, via Dubai. This was a new route for me. The past couple times I have taken Air-India to New York, and then a local flight to SF. But given the uncertainty with Air India (one is never sure if they have enough money to pay for the fuel to fly), I gave it a skip and looked for an alternate path. The Emirates route beckoned — in terms of convenience (a single transfer) and duration (just about 21 hours). And so, I took it to SF.

Emirates also had the new 777 aircraft from Boeing which makes the in-flight experience much better. The service was excellent. And the buzzing Dubai airport was a revelation.

On my way back, as I looked at the monitor for my flight gate, I was amazed to see the number of Indian destinations Emirates was serving from Dubai. I think I counted 10+ flights in the next 3 hours to various Indian cities. Little wonder then that Air India is in the state it is.

Writing One’s Obituary – Today

I was talking to a friend recently, and the topic turned to what to do with the rest of one’s life. It was then that I suggested that he should write his obituary and then work backwards from there.

Let me explain. We normally think incrementally forward from where we are – the next few months or the next year, and so on. Another approach that I had once read was to think of what one would like to be remembered by. Imagine if The Economist wrote a 1-page obituary after your death – what would it read like. Or, what you would like it to read like. And then live life to accomplish the things you have written.

I did this a few years ago, and it helped me think of life differently, and got me started on the track to helping bring about change in India.

Try it out. There is little to lose. On the one hand, it could just end up being an intellectual exercise. On the other, it could help give a new meaning and perspective to the rest of your life.

Blog Past: India needs Open Government

I had attended Gov 2.0 last September. Here is one of the ideas I wrote about after the conference:

1.       India needs to embrace the open government and open data movement.

When President Obama took over in January 2009, he issued the Open Government and Open Data directive. The focus was on making government more transparent, accountable, collaborative and participative. One outcome is that government departments are making available their raw datasets on a common portal to be accessible by citizens and developers.  The result is the portal.

What this does is to get more people involved in looking at the data and creating apps and websites that present the data in a more analysable format – rather than relying on government bureaucrats to determine what is important. Mashups across departments create for deeper insights into the workings of the government, leading to faster and smarter decisions.

What is really needed in India is to make all government data (except that which involves the privacy of an individual or national security) open and accessible to all.  This approach is the opposite of the thinking behind RTI (Right to Information). In India, the government jealously guards data and treats it as its private property. RTI is a lever to pry some of the data out of the hands of the government but the maintained assumption is that the data is unavailable to citizens in general.