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Automatic launched this week

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The startup that I’ve been part of for more than a year has launched this week : Automatic – Your Smart Driving Assistant. It’s a hardware device + mobile app + cloud combination that helps you save money by helping you drive in a more fuel-efficient way, monitor your car engine’s health, automatic call to local authorities/911 in case of a car crash, and will automatically remember where you parked your car (note that the product is currently USA-only).

Watch the video:

Now, go and pre-order it now at www.automatic.com.

So how did I get involved? A couple of years back when I was considering freelancing full-time, Thejo Kote got in touch with me and I got started with NextDrop for which he was one of the co-founders. After some time, I was looking for something more long-term, so I pinged Thejo and he welcomed me to join his new startup.

[Read more…]

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From Lessons on Leading by Jessica Steel :

Leaders recognize that we should feel 60% mastery and 40% stretch in our jobs at any given time. We draw our confidence from the 60% we know we’re nailing, and we grow from the challenge of the 40% that is new and uncomfortable for us. Leaders focus on this equation for all of their employees. And, for themselves. Confident, challenged and happy employees tend to stick around.

This struck a chord with me on one of the most under-focused roles of managers, because, of course, it’s hard to make it happen, but at the same time, this is what employees appreciate the most, besides salary raises (and sometimes in lieu of salary as well).

P.S. I also liked the “A leader’s job is to absorb anxiety and instill confidence among employees” part in the above linked article.

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Review of Cal Newport’s So Good book

Cal Newport So Good book cover

Last weekend, I read Cal Newport’s latest book – “So Good They Can’t Ignore  You” and was very happy that I read it – it was just the sort of book that helps a person who is a few years into his/her career and is beginning to question many things about his/her own career. Of course, the book is relevant to people in all stages of their career, but I think people who are in this stage are more likely to grok what the book is talking about.

The book starts off by destroying the “passion hypothesis” which states that you “should find work that you love”. The book aptly demonstrates why that is a wrong premise and that loving what you do comes AFTER you’re good at it. He emphasizes:

Compelling (i.e. inspiring) careers often have complex origins that reject the simple idea that all you have to do is follow your passion.

This is where Cal starts talking about career capital:

Basic economic theory tell us that if you want something that’s both rare and valuable, you need something rare and valuable to offer in return – this is Supply and Demand 101. It follows that if you want a great job, you need something of great value to offer in return.

Acquiring career capital requires the craftsman mindset which is about working day in and day out on getting better at your craft. Achieving flow is a good thing, but something equally important is deliberate practice, i.e. intensive work aimed at stretching yourself at your craft:

Geoff Colvin wrote: Doing things we know how to do well is enjoyable, and that’s exactly the opposite of what deliberate practice demands… Deliberate practice is above all an effort of focus and concentration. That is what makes it “deliberate”, as distinct from the mindless playing of scales or hitting of tennis balls that most people engage in.

Cal goes on to explain:

If you show up and do what you’re told, you will reach an “acceptable level” of ability before plateauing. The good news about deliberate practice is that it will push you past this plateau and into a realm where you have little competition. The bad news is that the reason so few people accomplish this feat is exactly because of the trait Colvin warned us about: Deliberate practice is often the opposite of enjoyable.

 

I like the term “stretch” for describing what deliberate practice feels like, as it matches my own experience with the activity. When I’m learning a new mathematical technique – a classic case of deliberate practice – the uncomfortable sensation in my head is best approximated as a physical strain, as if my neurons are physically re-forming into new configurations. As any mathematician will admit, this stretching feels much different than applying a technique you’ve already mastered, which can be quite enjoyable. But this stretching, as any mathematician would also admit, is the precondition to getting better.

 

This is what you should experience in your own pursuit of “good”. If you’re not uncomfortable, then you’re probably stuck at an “acceptable level.”

 

Pushing past what’s comfortable, however, is only one part of the deliberate-practice story; the other part is embracing honest feedback – even if destroys what you thought was good.

I had a big a-ha moment as I read this passage:

  • I used to “stretch” myself regularly long ago when I used to read many computer science papers and I was constantly trying out new technology, these days I’m just stuck when it comes to reading papers, for example, Out of the Tar Pit and On Lisp papers have been on my reading list for a long time and perhaps I’ve been avoiding it exactly because it is not an enjoyable activity if your mind is being stretched.
  • When people say I’m “not learning anything new”, it is because there is no deliberate practice in their lives. We are more comfortable doing what we already know rather than learning something new which will possibly makes our work simpler and better. This is the “simple vs. easy” that Rich Hickey (obligatory mention) talks about.
  • This is what Leo Babauta is referring to in the Habit of Starting: “You are comfortable with what you’re doing (reading online, probably), and the habit is less comfortable (it’s too hard). We cling to the comfortable.”
  • Open source programmers tend to be better programmers because of the feedback they get from people they collaborate with – who are people who care about their craft, and not the type of colleagues or managers whose sole goal is to mark a task as done without attention to how it has been implemented.
  • This is what Chad Fowler talked about in the Passionate Programmer book : “Practicing may include learning more about your programming environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading (reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.”
  • I’ve been kicking myself that I know all these concepts but have not yet been able to put it into practice. There’s always hope that I’ll start chanting the mantra “deliberate practice” everyday for an hour or two.

The point is that “hard work” is not the answer, “hard work deliberately intended to improve your craft” is the answer.

And what do you do after you keep acquiring career capital? You invest it on yourself in a few ways such as acquiring more control:

At this point, Lulu’s skills were so valuable that finding clients was no problem. More importantly, working as a contractor also gave her extreme flexibility in how she did her work. She would travel for three or four weeks at a time when she felt like getting away. “If the weather was nice on a Friday,” she told me, “I would just take the day off to go flying” (she obtained her pilot’s license around this time). When she started work and when she ended her days were up to her. “A lot of these days I would take a niece or nephew and have fun. I went to the children’s museum and zoo probably more than anybody else in the city,” she recalls. “They couldn’t stop me from doing these things, as I was just a contractor.”

This story sounds familiar because I started freelancing with some of the same mindset – at that stage of my career after having worked at Yahoo!, Adobe, my own startup (creating a product) and Infibeam (in the hot area of ecommerce), I had acquired enough career capital that I was getting good job offers but I wanted to experience freedom of cutting down the miscellaneous corporate activities and focus purely on coding and that is what my life has been about – that was how I was able to work out of Goa in a road trip.

Of course, that career capital is not going to last forever. That is where I need to work even harder and start acquiring more career capital.

If control is not what you’re seeking, there is another thing that you could invest in : a mission:

A mission is a unifying focus for your career. It’s more general than a specific job and can span multiple positions. It provides an answer to the question, What should I do with my life? Missions are powerful because they focus your energy toward a useful goal, and this in turn maximizes your impact on the world – a crucial factor in loving what you do. People who feel like their careers truly matter are more satisfied with their working lives, and they’re also more resistant to the strain of hard work.

How do you get to finding a mission? That’s where you need significant career capital to be at the cutting-edge of your work:

The examples of joint discoveries in scientific breakthroughs [where multiple people make the same scientific discoveries around the same time] surprised me, but it would not have surprised the science writer Steve Johnson. In his engaging 2010 book, “Where Good Ideas Come From”, Johnson explains that such multiples are frequent in the history of science. Consider the discovery of sunspots in 1611: As Johnson notes, four scientists, from four different countries, all identified the phenomenon during that same year. The first electrical battery? Invented twice in the mid-eighteenth century. Oxygen? Isolated independently in 1772 and 1774. In one study cited by Johnson, researchers from Columbia University found just shy of 150 different examples of prominent scientific breakthroughs made by multiple researchers at near the same time.

 

Big ideas, Johnson explained, are almost always discovered in the “adjacent possible“. We take the ideas that we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across, and we jigger them together into some new shape, he explained. The next big ideas in any field are found right beyond the current cutting edge, in the adjacent space that contains the possible new combinations of existing ideas. The reason important discoveries often happen multiple times, therefore, is that they only become possible once they enter the adjacent possible, at which point anyone surveying this space – that is, those who are the current cutting edge – will notice the same innovations waiting to happen.

 

Scientific breakthroughs, as we just learned, require that you first get to the cutting edge of your field. Only then can you see the adjacent possible beyond, the space where innovative ideas are almost always discovered. A good career mission is similar to a scientific breakthrough – it’s an innovation waiting to be discovered in the adjacent possible of your field.

When you reach the cutting edge of your field, you start seeing the new possibilities combining old and new ideas, and that’s where innovative new ideas come and that’s where your mission is found.

For example, using “big data” to make breakthroughs in understanding of genes requires someone to have observed the “big data” phenomenon and applying them to medical field and that becomes their mission in advancing that science. Of course, all this doesn’t apply only to science, it can apply to any field, whether it is material fabrics in fashion industry or new kinds of crowdsourcing for philanthropy or innovation (think Kiva, Kickstarter, Quirky). For example, why did Zynga come up with the idea of social games on top of Facebook? Because they were at the cutting edge when they saw Facebook rise and wanted to take advantage of it in games and they knew how to do that. And so on.

I think I should stop here because I have quoted enough from the book and don’t want to be sued by the publisher or anything like that. There is a lot more interesting concepts and learnings from the book. I recommend that you go buy and read it!

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Working out of Goa

I finally got to check one particular item out of my bucket list – working out of Goa. This was possible purely because of freelancing which means I can be anywhere as long as I’m getting the work done.

When my wife and myself were planning this month-long road trip – driving from Bangalore to Mysore (so that I could run a half marathon to Mulki (so that the wife can learn surfing in the ocean to Goa, we charted out the course and stay, but I insisted we don’t book any hotels in Goa. “Why?” she asked, and I said I wanted to test travelling the way the foreigners do as I had written earlier. That turned out to be a great idea, because we found the perfect room for us – clean, spacious, reasonable tariff, separate entrance, undisturbed by neighbours, and most of all, we can see the beach and the ocean from the bed! And there was no way we could have ever found out about this place online when the owner was puzzled what “WiFi” means…

This was the view from our porch:

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The owners even had a friendly cat:

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The best part about having a room almost on the beach was the amazing evening walks after a long day of work and hot weather.

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Of course, there had to be a “but.” It couldn’t be all perfect. I had a Reliance NetConnect+ as well as a Tata Photon+ connection. The former hardly worked throughout the trip after we left Bangalore, so I cancelled that. However, even the Tata Photon+ connection didn’t work in our room :( … after much calls and even a visit from a Vodafone personnel, it seemed that nobody gave connectivity towards the beach! How ironic for me when I said “All I need is my laptop and an Internet connection for me to work anywhere”… so we started searching for rooms in the main market area where we could get connectivity.

I literally held my laptop with the Photon+ USB stick attached and checking for signal at each place we checked out, heh! But the quality and location of rooms were pathetic. So I decided that we’ll continue to stay at our perfect room, so what about connectivity? Everyday morning, I drove 3–4 km to the main market area, parked the car, sat in the backseat, and had access to full Internet connectivity signal as long as the laptop battery lasted! Then, I would go back to the room and continue to work mostly offline – I connected my laptop to the WiFi hotspot from my Android phone and used the GPRS connection for the occasional technical searches I ended up doing. That was interesting for sure.

Two things I relearned – having a deadline (the battery is running out!) made me get more stuff done, and having no internet connectivity is good for your productivity (there, I said the P-word, hadn’t written about it in a long time! :-P)

Another aspect of the trip was the major expense – food. Initially, we ended up going to bad restaurants. Then, we resorted to the simplest trick in the travel book – ask the locals! The best restaurants we ended up going was Bed Rock, Infantaria and Jay Jays.

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… as well as Cape Town Cafe which had great salads and fantastic live performances (on Tuesdays and Thursdays):

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On days when my brain was tired, we would escape to nearby sights such as Fort Aguada:

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Overall, I surprisingly did get a lot of work done and yet had fun in visiting places, enjoying the night life and the general relaxed atmosphere. We had got so used to it that we had difficulty in motivating ourselves to start our journey again from Goa!

After the three weeks were up, we continued our journey visiting places like Ambaulim Falls where I dunked my head in flowing cold water…

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… and visiting a colourful Kolhapur, and so on.

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Oh yeah, there was an unintended side-effect of writing about this trip – one fine day, my Dad called me up to tell me that I had received a snail-mail from the police that I jumped a traffic signal near Ulsoor on the very same day that we were on the beaches of Mulki, near Mangalore. I consulted a friend who advised me to email the head of traffic police which I promptly did and also included the blog links which had photos of us driving the very same car. A few days later, the Ulsoor traffic police inspector called me and said “nice pics” and informed me that the traffic violation ticket will be cancelled! (It was heartening to see that the entire process was over email and to note that the Bangalore traffic police is actually using modern ways to connect with citizens).

Update: Also see Traveling, Writing and Programming by the awesome Alex MacCaw.

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Leaving Infibeam

Today is my last day at Infibeam.

I’m going to miss working in this environment because I learned a lot about ecommerce and online buying in India. For example, I was surprised to know how much sales go up during Diwali (in hindsight, not so surprising, of course) and was surprised at the amount of online buying that happens from Tier II cities. Then there was the learning on the huge amount of logistics that happens – the part where the customer visits the website and clicks on the Buy button is just 1% of the total stuff that happens behind-the-scenes.

I am also thankful to Ajay and Infibeam for getting me into the Rails wagon, I’m finally starting to see the light. Learning a new language and framework from scratch to delivering a full ecommerce platform in 4–5 months was a fascinating experience. And soon, anyone can set up their own online store on top of Infibeam’s infrastructure.

Infibeam has done many things right, has many things to improve, and rumors say they may face many challenges in the future. All in all, that’s a good thing. Infibeam launched at the right time and is helping to grow ecommerce in India, and it will continue to do so.

But alas, it’s time for me to move on. I can haz plans.


Listening to Stand Up by The Prodigy

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Passionate Programmer book review

Every once in a while I get an email like this:

Sir, I am a beginner to python and programming. I started with the C++
and found it hard so one day via google I found your perfect tutorial
“A byte of Python”. I read the whole tutorial in one day because it is
so interesting and helpful. Sir, I have created the script to backup
files from directory as you mentioned. Please see the script once and
tell me if I have chances in programming career. Sir I am final B.tech
student and I love programming. But I was rejected by every company
during campus placement because of my poor communication skills and
due to this my confidence level is very low. Sir I have also created a
web based application using PHP, MySQL and Kannel on Debian based
server for intra-college communication. Sir, I am regular reader of
your blog and I respect what you are doing to help freshers like me.
Sir I would like to know if you have any advice for me.

And like this:

I want to thank you about this great book ;-). I am a 20-years-old
student in computer science from Bulgaria and i found this book very
interesting and helpful. I’ve been programming in python for half a
month. I had little experience in C from the university and I wanted
to learn a high level language with simple syntax like Python and then
learn C++ and start writing useful programs. I send you a solution of
the problem in the end of the book that is just a demo version. Can
you give me a hint what i got to improve to make the address book
program better and give me the source code of your solution? I really
want to become a programmer so any advices especially from a man with
your knowledge would be highly appreciated! Thanks.

For a long time, I used to scratch my head for every such email because I really didn’t know what advice I have to offer. I did end up writing How Fresh Graduates Can Grow which a lot of students have liked.

In the past couple of years, I have started replying with just one line – I ask them to read The Passionate Programmer: Creating a Remarkable Career in Software Development by Chad Fowler. I happily  recommend this book knowing that if they actually do read and apply the principles in this book, they can’t go wrong.

I had read this book in its first edition when it was called My Job Went to India and I read it again when the renamed second edition came out.

The title of the book is self-explanatory but what makes the book special from other regular career books is that it is geared specifically to the art of software programming as well as explaining networking and many soft concepts/human aspects in a for-geeks “53 recipes” style.

Some of my favorite recipes/lessons are:

4. Be the worst

Legendary jazz guitarist Pat Metheny has a stock piece of advice for
young musicians, which is “Always be the worst guy in every band
you’re in.” Being the worst guy in the band means always playing with
people who are better than you.

Being the worst guy/gal on the team has the same effect as being the
worst guy in the band. You find that you’re unexplainably smarter.
You even speak and write more intelligently. Your code and designs get
more elegant, and you find that you’re able to solve hard problems
with increasingly creative solutions.

6. Don’t listen to your parents

I remember talking to a friend about potentially moving out of this
company, and he said, “Is it your destiny to work at $bigcompany for
the rest of your life?”
Hell no it wasn’t!_ So, I quickly found
another job and left.

This movement marked the clear beginning of a nonlinear jump in my
success in the software industry. I saw new domains, I worked on
harder problems, and I was rewarded more heavily than ever before. It
was scary at times, but when I decided to be less fear-driven and
conservative in my career choice, the shape and tone of my career – my
life – changed for the better.

15. Practice, practice, practice

When you practice music, it shouldn’t sound good. If you always
sound good during practice sessions, it means you’re not stretching
your limits. That’s what practice is for. The same is true in sports.
Athletes push themselves to the limit during workouts so they can
expand those limits for real performances. They let the ugliness
happen behind closed doors – not when they’re actually working.

Our industry tends to practice on the job. Can you imagine a
professional musician getting onstage and replicating the gibberish
from my university’s practice rooms? It wouldn’t be tolerated.
Musicians are paid to perform in public – not to practice. As an
industry, we need to make time for practice.

Practicing may include learning more about your programming
environment (APIs, libraries, methodologies, etc.), sight reading
(reading new pieces of open source code to improve your ability to
read and understand code), improvisation (introduce new constraints in
small projects to improve your thinking abilities) and so on.
[paraphrased]

32. Say it, Do it, Show it

You should start communicating your plans to your management. The best
time to start communicating the plans is after you have executed at
least one cycle of the plan. And – this is an important point – start
doing it before they ask you to do it. No manager in his or her right
mind would be unhappy to receive a succinct weekly e-mail from an
employee stating what was accomplished in the past week and what they
plan to do in the next. Receiving this kind of regular message
unsolicited is a manager’s dream.

Start by communicating week by week. When you’ve gotten comfortable
with this process, start working in your thirty, sixty, and
ninety-day plans. On the longer views, stick to high-level, impactful
progress you plan to make on projects or systems you maintain. Always
state these long-term plans as proposals to your manager, and ask for
feedback.

The most critical factor to keep in mind with everything that goes
onto a plan is that it should always be accounted for later. Every
item must be either visibly completed, delayed, removed, or replaced.
No items should go unaccounted for. If items show up on a plan and are
never mentioned again, people will stop trusting your plans, and the
plans and you will counteract the effectiveness of planning. Even if
the outcome is bad, you should communicate it as such. We all make
mistakes. The way to differentiate yourself is to address your
mistakes or inabilities publicly and ask for help resolving them.
Consistently tracing tasks on a plan will create the deserved
impression that no important work is getting lost in the mix.

43. Making the Hang

Speaking for myself (and extrapolating from there), the most serious
barrier between us mortals and the people we admire is our own fear.
Associating with smart, well-connected people who can teach you things
or help you find work is possibly the best way to improve yourself,
but a lot of us are afraid to try. Being part of a tight-knit
professional community is how musicians, artists, and other
craftspeople have stayed strong and evolved their respective artforms
for years. The gurus are the supernodes in the social and professional
network. All it takes to make the connection is a little less
humility.

Of course, you don’t want to just randomly start babbling at these
people. You’ll obviously want to seek out the ones with which you have
something in common. Perhaps you read an article that someone wrote
that was influential. You could show them work you’ve done as a result
and get their input. Or, maybe you’ve created a software interface to
a system that someone created. That’s a great and legitimate way to
make the connection with someone.

44. Already Obsolete

You have to start by realizing that even if you’re on the bleeding
edge of today’s wave, you’re already probably behind on the next one.
Timing being everything, start thinking ahead with your study. What
will be possible in two years that isn’t possible now? What if disk
space were so cheap it was practically free? What if processors were
two times faster? What would we not have to worry about optimizing
for? How might these advances change what’s going to hit?

Yes, it’s a bit of a gamble. But, it’s a game that you will
definitely lose if you don’t play. The worst case is that you’ve
learned something enriching that isn’t directly applicable to your job
in two years. So, you’re still better off looking ahead and taking a
gamble like this. The best case is that you remain ahead of the curve
and can continue to be an expert in leading-edge technologies.

Looking ahead and being explicit about your skill development can mean
the difference between being blind or visionary.

P.S. This lesson was the reason why I started admiring DHH even more after seeing he is not afraid to include CoffeeScript and SCSS in Rails 3.1

51. Avoid Waterfall Career Planning

The important thing to realize is that change is not only possible in
your career but necessary. As a software developer, you would never
want to pour yourself into developing something your client doesn’t
want. Agile methodologies help prevent you from doing so. The same is
true of your career. Set big goals, but make constant corrections
along the way. Learn from the experience, and change the goals as you
go. Ultimately, a happy customer is what we all want (especially when,
as we plan our careers, we are our own customers) – not a completed
requirement.

I probably put more excerpts from the book here than I should, but I wanted to drive home the point on some of the non-obvious-but-critical points that the book raises that every software developer should ponder about.

Go buy the book / ebook now!

Update: Also see Top 5 Developer Skills That Will Get You Hired or Promoted

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Joining InfiBeam

Update: As of 22 June, 2011, I’m no longer with Infibeam.

Thanking the community

First and foremost, thanks to all who encouraged me, and offered support and help when I wrote about leaving my own company. Many people, without any personal benefit in mind, connected me to very interesting opportunities. And this is exactly how I got my next gig.[1]

What was specifically amazing to me was that folks were connecting me to opportunities that I would not have heard of otherwise, and enthusiastically vouching for me. Now that was really humbling. Within two weeks of my blog post, I had a job! And I didn’t even have to look for it, so thank you guys. As Seth Godin put it, who needs a resume indeed!

InfiBeam

So where am I joining? InfiBeam – which I can best describe as “Amazon of India.”[2]

infibeam 001

So why am I excited about InfiBeam?

In my previous startup, I experienced the phase of starting from scratch till creating a product. Unfortunately, I did not get to see the second part, the business side of things, including the hard part of selling, the act of knowing the customer, the logistics and operations, etc. I was still yearning for that.

At the same time, getting to see this second phase a few years later would not have made sense because I would’ve lost the enthusiasm and momentum that I have at this point in time. So, in that sense, I’m really excited about InfiBeam because I’ll get to be part of this second phase.

Second, I was specifically looking for companies in “core” areas, in the sense, someone who makes consumer products and services in India for India, and specifically, either ecommerce or mobile. And, voila, the universe conspired.

Third, I was being cautious and really looking to understand the people in the company and not only what the company makes. After all, it’s only the people aspect which makes or breaks your experience and enthusiasm. And I spent quite a bit of time interacting with the people I would potentially work with, and I came out of the discussions very happy.

Fourth, what I especially liked most about the company was their customer focus as well as the focus of building the right culture inside the company. It’s very hard for startups to focus on these soft aspects, because it easily gets sidelined compared to the hectic everyday.

InfiBeam Customer Service

InfiBeam Core Values (list)

There were quite a few opportunities that I explored, but I intuitively felt that InfiBeam was the place to be. And I went ahead with that gut instinct.

Both Business and Tech

And, as an example of a great fit for me, my job description says that I have to take up any product or strategy and deliver it end-to-end from the business model to the technical implementation.

I had thoughts of shifting back to pure coding at first, but then decided a business focus is indeed a good thing, and something I wish I had taken seriously right at the start of my career (better late than never!). For example, quoting from a recent Deccan Herald article:
> It cites Nasscom study which states that India faces IT talent shortfall of between 8,00,000 and 1.2 million workers by 2012. It observes that, though many producers continue to work with universities, government and other firms to improve the quality of technology education, and Asian countries continue to produce large numbers of IT employees, they, however, lag in comparison with North America and Europe in providing well-rounded technology education. Among Asian economies, the concern is that education systems puts too much focus on pure IT skills and not enough on IT in the business context. Likewise, top schools in the US and Europe, which do better in this area, face long-term challenges in cultivating science and technical engineering skills of its younger students. Thus, globally, the study posits that investment in skills development remains long-term imperative.

If it feels scary…

I am positive about this gig because I will be forced to become good at what I do because of the quality of people I work with, and knowing that you’re in a good environment when you consider yourself the dumbest guy in the room.

In such situations, I keep quoting Jeff Atwood:

If it feels scary, it’s the right choice.

Wish me luck!

[1] Specifically, a shout of thanks to Nimish Adani of Workosaur.

[2] Yes, this was a way of skipping the topic that, yes, InfiBeam’s current web design looks similar to that of Amazon.com design. Yes, I don’t like it too. It is a distraction which prevents potential users to proceed to the next step of appreciating the amazing services provided by InfiBeam.

Update on Jan 31, 2010: InfiBeam has launched the first Indian ebook store and the first Indian ebook reader.

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The 5-year limit to being a coder in India?

Let me start with a story I had heard about long ago when I was at Adobe.

There was this guy who had come in for interviews for a technical role. He passed all the tech interviews with flying colors, the team liked his personality and felt he would fit in well, and the manager was all smiles. In the last HR-style round with the group head, he was informed that the team works on products that are completely owned by the Bangalore-based group and that there won’t be any travel to USA. The guy was taken aback. He told the group head “Sir, please let me go to USA for just one day. If I have a USA stamp in my passport, I will get one crore dowry.”

Needless to say, the guy was not offered a job.

I’m sure you can draw your own lessons and observations from this incident, because it will come into context below, about a discussion we’ve been having on Twitter. It all started with @debabrata who read my previous blog post on the magic of foss.in and asked:

why this ‘5 years limit’ applies to Indian software pro ? In other countries people are happy being programmer after 20 years .

I asked the tweeps for their opinions, and it got very interesting.

@cruisemaniac said: society defined age to get married and settle down = ~27 = 22+5 failing which u’re an outcast!
and: also, post that age, ur risk apetite goes down due to family and other commitments…

to which:

@HJ91 said: True. Very true. Outcast is the right word, and its sad. Outcast. Insulting, hurting and pathetic.

Wow, this feeling runs deep.

so I asked:

You mean risk appetite or time commitment? … how does risk appetite relate to interest in coding?

And the replies came pouring in:

@mixdev: One of the reasons why brilliant people end up being (just) tell-me-whatto-do-n-leave-me-alone software engineers

@cruisemaniac: I’d say both… U cant risk a new tech and venture 4 fear of financial security… U want tat cozy safe zone and pay packet.

@cruisemaniac: time is a big costly commodity 4 us… we indians cant afford to spend it at our will with spouses and children at home…

@mallipeddi: It’s very hard to keep getting bigger paychecks yr after yr if you’re a 30 yr old coder. You’re expected to become a mgr/MBA

@abhinav: I believe the reason is our society. We tie success to degrees, and later, more ppl you manage more successful you are.

@abhinav: Where in western societies your idea fails, here it is you who have failed! Our society doesnt appreciate risk takers

@abhinav: Yes, more money, higher status, easy life. And most importantly, more dowry!

@mixdev: Because our goals are set by the society & achieving them also in their control. You get bored faster.

@debabrata: I guess to the great extent our society dictates us what we want to be unlike the west

I found it surprising that the situation why people cannot remain coders in India is almost the same as why people want to become entrepreneurs! It’s like this: The passion for coding will remain only when you’re doing cool and interesting stuff. But big companies (at least in India) want only stability which implies boring tedious jobs with standard languages and libraries. There is no room for experimentation. So the coder will have to move to a smaller company or a startup if he/she wants to continue to like coding (I’m ignoring the case of research laboratories for obvious reasons of numbers).

But moving to a smaller company or startup is, by definition, not encouraged. As @abhinav mentioned, there is societal pressure for more money, higher status, fancier cars and bigger houses. There is nothing wrong with wanting this, but don’t force it on other people! Alas, it is hard to reason regarding this. I remember having a long argument with an uncle of mine, he was, hmm, “strongly” suggesting that I buy a car and I reasoned out why it makes no sense (after all, most peers of mine use the car only for weekend drives, not for everyday commute) but it fell on deaf ears.

So I’m conflicted here: Are there not enough people who are actually interested in coding, or is it that the interested people are being peer-pressurized into “moving up” into managerial roles and hence lose touch with coding? Or are we completely off the mark here?

Update 1: As suggested by Peter, read this entry tited “Stuck in Code” by Ravi Mohan for his tale on this topic.

Update 2: A related article in NYTimes recently titled “In India, Anxiety Over the Slow Pace of Innovation”

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The difference between fun and work

Reading a book is fun. If you have to do a review on the book for the newspaper by Friday, it becomes work.

Writing code is fun. If you have a deadline next week, it becomes work.

Spending time with that special someone is fun. After tying the knot and having no other choice makes it work (or so I’m told).

Calculating sports match statistics is fun. Spending the same amount of time to balance your checkbooks is work.

Is commitment the difference between fun and work?

P.S. Yeah, I had a Godin moment.

Update : After reading all the interesting thoughts by you folks in the comments section, maybe spontaneity is one of the major differentiatiors?

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One year since I had a salary

It has been exactly one year since I quit my last job.

The good

Things that I thought was important but didn’t turn out to be:

It has been one year since:

  • I had to do something because I had no choice.
  • I had a boss.
  • I had to attend meetings.
  • Since I have been answerable to someone.

Things that turned out to be important:

Discovering things about myself that had been previously masked. For example, discipline is about doing things even when there is no one watching you. I realized how bad I was at this, and a year later, I’ve significantly improved.

Equally important, I’ve discovered many of my strengths. And learning how to build on those.

For example, I ended up jumping in full-time into our own startup – we have three guys in our little company, and I’m learning how to leverage each of our strengths as a team. Why is this different from previous experiences? Because I was told to do things. Here, we are the ones deciding what to do and the guys actually doing it. In all this decision making, I realized what areas I have a good nose for, and which ones I don’t.

The bad

One year flew by and I don’t even know how. Definitely not a good thing.

I’m simply not satisfied with the results.

Back to the drawing board…

The ugly

It has been one year without a salary.

Thoughts

Like a wise man once said “Only when you’re truly lost do you begin to find yourself.”

This is exactly what happened to me. When I quit, I had all sorts of visions that my freedom would be exciting and I can do anything I want. In fact, the first month was exactly that and I had lot of fun. The second month was disastrous, it is amazing how depressing one can get if there is nothing to do. An idle man is a DevD’s workshop.

I started thinking about what it is that I want out of life and what it is that I can do. Even though I still don’t have an answer, I have a far better understanding of what the answer would be like, than I previously did.

I have many things to look forward to, especially some exciting things coming up with our company. Lots of things to learn. And most importantly, focusing on lots of things to do.

Still a long way to go.