Archive for the ‘Technology’ Category
Come Monday morning and Tekriti would have moved out of Palm Court and Sun Tower for good. We came to Palm Court in October 2005 when we were barely 15 strong. Back in mid-2005, when we had started hunting for new office space, we were targeting a space of around 2000 sqft. In fact we had zeroed in on a 2200 sqft office in building nearby but thankfully the deal did not go through over a pretty minor issue. The next weekend, a property dealer showed us 602A Palm Court. The office at 3510 sqft was almost double in size and budget. We were told that we could take half of that office. The building also housed two call centers at that time. Hence, the courtyard was full of young kids and it almost felt like a college campus. That appealed to us and we decided to move in. I don’t exactly remember how we ended up taking the entire space because 3500 sqft seemed like “way too much space” back then. The office owner had been pretty suspicious as to why we needed this much space when we were only 10-12 of us.
The office was furnished in the most unconventional way. Right from the color of the fabric used, to color of walls, to the texture of wood used in the cubicles, there was nothing “office-like” about it and we loved it for that.
With a seating capacity of 36, the office used to feel really empty when we first moved in. Almost a third of the cubicles were vacant. Central air conditioning was a new luxury for us and with so few people around, the office would become terribly cold even during peak summers. Few of the girls carried shawls and jackets to office every day!
Late nights in Palm Court were always felt like more fun than work. Because of the call centers, the building was buzzing with people even at 2 AM in the night. There were a few all night “dhabas” within the building courtyard. Having a hot Maggi or chai in winters over there was almost a daily ritual for most of us.
The Tekriti Cultural Team was born at this new office. All the extra space we had was a great excuse to party without reason. We had many samosa parties, quizzes, skits, Diwali, Holi, Xmas parties at that office. One of my favorites was when I donned the red Santa outfit (back then I definitely looked like a Santa on a diet!).
I guess it took us just about an year to fill up the 6th floor office. We then got another office on the ground floor and then another office in the nearby Sun Tower. In the last three years, we have been through six different small and big offices. Amongst all of these, after the first one at Galleria, 602A Palm Court holds a special place for me, and I am sure, for many of the Teknokrats.
The Indian IT industry is one spoilt industry. An experienced and successful entrepreneur once commented to me that for an industry to grow at a healthy pace, an unemployment rate of higher than 7-8% is needed. I think it makes a lot of sense. In the IT industry today, with manpower being scarce, the focus is merely on retention, hiring policies and compensation. While that does not mean that the industry is not growing at a scorching pace, it does mean that as a group, we are focused on the wrong issues.
Being a service focused industry, the dependence on manpower is inevitable. As such, I think it is a good thing because it generates employment, improves lifestyle and overall helps in GDP growth. But I absolutely despise the fact that the biggest “challenge” that the industry faces is a employee retention. So much time, effort, energy and money is spent on just one aspect of business that we are losing focus of the bigger picture. This trend is especially harmful for the fresh and young graduates who have just joined the industry or have been here for only a few years. Constantly pampered and hailed as the country’s saviors, these young IT professionals live with a false sense of security. They start at salaries at which people in other industries retire, switch jobs every few months and in general lead the good life.
While this appears to be a win-win situation for both the workforce and the organization, it unfortunately prepares neither for the long haul. With organizations constantly focused on retaining and hiring employees “at all costs”, our price competitiveness in the services industry is bound to suffer. Average salary hikes in the IT industry are in the range of 12-15%. If profit margins have been traditionally pegged at around 30% and billing rates are only going down, its easy to see how this current model is unsustainable in the long run. The answer of course is to move up the value chain, provide higher quality services and innovate. But with most organizations spending all their energy in maintaining headcount, where is the time to strategize and move up the value chain?
The IT workforce is actually getting an even worse deal. Switching jobs usually means a 20%+ rise in salary. Hence, on an average, an IT worker spends less than 2 years at one organization. Consequently, we have a large pool of inexperienced yet expensive workforce. This in turn ill equips IT organizations in India to move up the value chain since the workforce isn’t stable and doesn’t have enough expertise to add more value in a cost effective way.
The situation doesn’t appear grim today because the world economy has been largely on an upswing for the past few years. So there has been enough business for IT companies to grow and thrive in spite of mounting costs and increasing difficulties in retaining employees. The media also paints a rosy picture and loves to glorify the Indian IT story. However, the big question is how well prepared are we for a downturn in economy? Are Indian IT companies prepared to handle an economic slowdown? More importantly, is our IT workforce equipped to face tough times? Are our young Turks taking their profession seriously enough? Are they spending more time on honing their skills and learning the ropes or are they only fretting over pay packages and job interviews? Do they have the maturity to prepare for future market correction?
Only time will tell but till then sorry, we don’t have time to innovate!
Reading this article made me wonder why we spend so much time glorifying “product companies”. It is a peculiar phenomenon of the tech industry in India to consider services company as completely devoid of innovation and thriving solely on labor arbitrage. I was myself guilty of similar thinking for a long time. However, after over 2 years of doing services and product development side by side, I have realized both have their own unique challenges and it is not at all fair to put services companies on a lower pedestal than product companies.
Firstly, there aren’t really any true product companies. No company can simply build and sell products without providing services around them. Microsoft - the epitome of software product development – has a very large fraction of its work force providing support and associated services around its products. Apple, IBM, Sun – you name it – all develop products and provide services around them. If anything – many of these companies (notably IBM) have realized that services is a much more profitable business to be in. IBM Global Services is probably world’s largest software services company.
Secondly, unlike common perception, services companies constantly innovate to remain competitive. The innovation may be in the form of better processes, better hiring strategies, or in developing complex technical solutions for their clients. It is true that many large software services companies do routine incremental maintenance work for systems that were architected elsewhere. However, that is true for large product companies as well which need to invest majority of their resources in maintaining and updating previous versions of their products. If anything, a services company has better chances of doing interesting work in varied technologies as against a product company which is likely to be tied to a single platform and a single product. For a services company, every client and every project is an opportunity to pick up a new technology. The portfolio and technical breadth of services companies is undeniably greater than those of product companies.
Finally, doing software services is a great first step towards building software products. The greatest advantage of providing software services for us has been that we have learnt to listen very carefully to what our customers are saying. On the shoulders of its clients, a services company gets an opportunity to look closely at varied business models, ship varied products and learn from mistakes and successes of others. All this is great experience that readies an organization to venture in to product development when the time comes.
Let us give credit where it is due. The Indian IT industry is what it is because the few big IT services companies which mastered their art. To compare with Silicon Valley is not only incorrect, it is also irrelevant. To deride services companies as doing low end labor intensive work is being ignorant. To assume that product development can’t happen here because we are not innovative is naive. If we were not innovative and smart, the IT services success story wouldn’t have happened as well. Lets get over the fixation with product development. It is happening and will happen more when the need arises. Meanwhile, lets raise a toast to all those services companies which have put India on the world map!
Hiring, as always, continues to remain a challenge for us. Somehow, requirements always increase faster than we can hire – which btw, is not a very bad problem to have!
Sometimes I come across candidates who are competent enough to fill in a position that we might be currently trying to hire for. However, at the same time they may not show much signs of growing into a higher job role in the future. For example, a candidate might satisfy most competencies expected from a software engineer but might not display any characteristics expected in a senior software engineer. Such situations are somewhat tricky to deal with. On one hand, there is an urgent vacancy that needs to be filled in. At the same time, you don’t want to bring in somebody who you do not see growing in role and responsibility in the future. After much thought, I have concluded that it is not correct to hire a candidate in such a situation. It is actually unfair to a candidate to bring them on board if you don’t see a career path for them in the organization. It can only lead to frustration and stagnation in the long run. This is not to say that one can not choose to remain an “individual contributor” without having to take up management responsibilities. I am all for it. But the “individual contributor” (IC) is a very specialized role meant for people with deep technical insight who can continue to provide leadership without having to explicitly take up management responsibilities. ICs were fairly common in Microsoft though I have yet to come across this concept in the Indian software industry.
Meanwhile – we continue to look for the best and brightest! If you are looking to work in an exciting fast paced environment, please check out our careers page!
Really good news from Marc finally forced me out of my blogging slumber. IBM is going to offer a corporate social networking solution. IBM’s solution, called Lotus Connect, offers out of the box common social networking components for deployment within corporate environments.
The IBM package includes five applications: profiles, where employees post information about their expertise and interests; communities, which are formed and managed by people with common interests; activities, which are used to manage group projects; bookmarks, where people share documents and Web sites with others; and blogs, where people post ongoing commentaries.
This is great news because in effect IBM has validated the stance that social networking is indeed relevant in the corporate environment. The feature set mentioned above is a sub-set of what People Aggregator offers. And People Aggregator has been out in the market for several months now. But selling to corporates is hard, especially for startups. IBM’s announcement will have the effect of making big corporates take notice of social networking. The IBM marketing machinery will make sure that the corporate world gets adequately educated about the benefits of employing the “Web 2.0″ and social networking constructs to the workplace.
It is also heartening to know that we were ahead of the curve by some distance! It was almost two years back when the idea of developing People Aggregator as a reusable software download was conceived!
So hopefully next time Marc goes pitching to a big company, at least he wont have to answer the “Why would we want that?” question!
[in response to this]
1. YOU are not the user but do try to be one
Rarely is software written by those who will use it. So let us ask the user what she wants. Let us stop building features because we love them. Let us at least attempt to use what we build.
2. The user is not stupid
The user may not be computer savvy. But she is not stupid. If she can’t use what we build, it is our fault. If we she can’t be productive with our software, it is our fault. If software doesn’t work the way most people expect it to, it is our fault.
3. If it doesn’t work then how well it was written doesn’t matter
Beautiful code does not equal usable software. We must learn to separate code from software. Well written, well documented, scalable, extensible code is fine but its the SOFTWARE which matters. Sorry to disappoint you but while code does matter, software matters more.
4. The converse of 3 is true
Let us stop cribbing about how poorly Windows is developed. Or how slow Office is. Millions of people swear by that software. That software changes lives. So what is the under the covers doesn’t matter if it works for the user.
5. Stop being a geek
Seriously. Let us stop it. Let us play less video games. Let us go out more. Take bath everyday. Let us be normal people. Maybe then we can really build what they want.
Please please please read this post by Kathy Sierra! The only refreshing piece I have found in the blogosphere in the last several weeks! I just loved it! Kathy talks about user passion but passion is most important for every entrepreneur.
Passion is a beautiful thing. Passion is what keeps you awake at night because you are so excited about what you are building. Passion is what makes you work on weekends. Passion is what blinds you to imaginary hurdles. Passion is what makes you deaf to destructive criticism. Passion more than makes up for lack of money. Passion attracts talent. Passion attracts customers. Passion brings pride in what you are doing. Passion sells your product. Passion sells your dreams. Passion makes you think differently. Passion makes you less greedy. Passion is what helps you get up after a bad fall. Passion is what builds great companies. Passion is the only hope for a startup.
Youtube got bought over by Google for a whopping $1.6 Billion (no links here – its all over the place!). Going by how popular the site has become, it was only a matter of time before one of the big guys bought it out. Congrats to them! Our company, Tekriti, started off building one of the earliest video sharing sites back in Feb-March 2005 for our first client. Ourmedia.org was launched in March 2005. YouTube came along almost 9 months later. Ourmedia had a host of video and media experts on its panel of advisors and it had (and has) a team of volunteer editors to wean out copyright content. YouTube on the other hand has the policy of letting copyright content remain online until the copyright owner objects. Ourmedia allows users to download the original high quality video while YouTube only allows online viewing of very low res. flash versions. So for a site that started with a 9 month lead, it feels like Ourmedia was a missed oppurtunity. Of course, to be clear, Ourmedia is a non-profit and making billions of dollars wasnt even the aim and it still gets significant traffic and has over 100,000 videos hosted. But the kind of popularity that Ourmedia should have seen never came along. At a personal level, it helped us get our company started and gave us the initial credibility any startup needs. So Ourmedia remains very special to me.
Looking back, I think there are some very useful lessons to be learnt:
1. Keep it simple and stupid. A lot of time was spent on defining what metadata should be captured while uploading a video. The result was this huge page (login required) with hundreds of form fields to be filled in. Even though most of those fields were optional, it was daunting for the average user to figure out this form. A simple minimalistic user interface helps!
2. Reliability is the key. Ourmedia uses the Internet Archive for storing media. This is great because it provides for free storage. But there were major problems with getting this integration to work. Essentially the video was first uploaded to Ourmedia and then copied over to the Archive using FTP. This was slow and often the servers would simply not respond. I think this is the killer feature of YouTube. It just works!
3. Focus! In my opinion, Ourmedia tried to be too many things at the same time. The site supported audio, image and text uploads along with videos. It supported forums, groups, user profiles and social networking as well. All in the alpha version. In hindsight (which, of course is 20/20), it would have been much more prudent to have done just one core feature (video upload and view) and make it work 100% of the times. Feature bloat is also a side effect of using a prebuilt platform (Drupal in the case of Ourmedia) since you seem to get so many features for “free” so you might as well add them to your site. In reality, adding a feature to an application should be driven by user demand and not by how easy it is to implement.
4. Virality. YouTube allowed embedding videos published there on other websites and blogs. This contributed in a big way to the exponential growth of YouTube. Same can be said for Flickr as well. Ourmedia did not have that viral effect because the user had to come to the website to view a video.
While we in Delhi took the lead in organizing the first Barcamp in India, Chennai has really taken the ball and is running with it. After their own Barcamp, they organized the much publicized BlogCamp. And now Vijay informs me that they will be conducting a unique event (definitely a first in India) similar to the DEMO conference that happens in the US. In Vijay’s words:
Proto is a platform. It is a showcase of the new age india, and the spirit of technological innovation in this country. We are a team of 20-so technological enthusiasts, entrepreneurs and Entrepreneurs-turning-VCs who are creating a list of the best technological innovations by startups here in India, bringing all the best VCs in and around the country (including from the Silicon Valley) and giving the entrepreneurs a chance to share their vision and dream. If it resonates with the technological community, who in the end of the day will be their end-consumers, the VCs have a better scale to evaluate the degree of pain point they are addressing. The slogan is simple: We are going to make every minute of the VC worthwhile, and hence will be putting the best of the breed companies on stage. The basic criteria is that they have something very innovative. In simple terms patentable technology, which will put the age old question of “Name me a company in India that builds products” to rest, for good, and they need to have a working prototype or version one of their product – as it helps everyone to better understand the idea, and also alleviates the fear of the idea being stolen.
We are looking for companies working on cutting edge products from and around India, to be a part of this. We have tenatively planned for this event three months down the lane, so that companies do get a chance to put together their concept into a working product, and everybody will get a chance to plan their schedules accordingly. This, we believe is going to be the beginning of a new revolution in India, when the youth rise up to define their own future, when India is showcased as more than a services destination.
I think this is a great idea. My only objection is to link innovation with “patentable” technology. Patents are such hairy beasts that if anything they often thwart innovation. Besides getting a patent is a long winded process. It is unlikely that a small little startup would have actually received any patents. But I am sure Proto will feature non-patented but innovative products as well. More information will be soon available at http://www.proto.in
And I think its about we had another event in Delhi! I am really interested in seeing something similar to Startup School Any takers?
Usability is my new obsession. Even after over three decades of the beginning of the personal computing revolution, we are completely inept at producing usable software. What is worst is that inspite of this, we – the engineers – simply refuse to acknowledge the importance of interaction design. No sir! What we care about is new progamming languages, code optimizations, scalable software and fancy terms like AJAX, RIA and RoR. User interface ranks right at the bottom, just below writing readable code and just above remembering to take a bath.
The perception amongst engineers that user interface is unimportant is a worrying trend. I think this attitude is a little bit more prevalent in India because traditionally Indian services companies have primarily been involved in building server side enterprise software. This is the kind of software that often runs without any interface or has an interface that is visible to very few technically savvy people. So historically, all the important development was handed off to the best engineers while the newbies were consigned to building the UI. The after effects of this linger on even today when we are working more and more on consumer facing products. The user interface is the single most important reason for success or failure of any product in this domain. Take, for example, this article about the increase in sales a travel site saw after they redesigned their site (http://www.usabilitynews.com/news/article3330.asp):
Following major site redesign work, MyTravel, one of the UK’s leading holiday and leisure groups with brands including Airtours, Going Places and Mytravel.com, is reaping significant improvements in online sales.
The three-phase redesign, developed in partnership with Foviance, has already resulted in a 20% increase in online booking conversion following the completion of the first two phases. Work on the third phase is to commence later this month.
The first phase, which went live in December, reduced booking times by up to 40% by simplifying the number of steps needed to book from eight to five. This resulted in a 10% improvement in conversion levels across all MyTravel’s websites.
So far most software companies in India have been reluctant to invest in developing interaction design expertise. This has in turn, meant that interaction design is a profession few understand and even fewer choose to pursue. This is unforuntate because we lose all the creative talent to other disciplines like advertising, toy design, corporate branding etc. If we want to build truly world class products, we must start to understand the importance of usability. We must make a concerted effort to make it a glamorous, high paying career oppurtunity. Just like we work hard to attract technical talent, we need to work hard to attract creative talent. Believe me, the “creative types” are scared of us engineers. They think we dont understand them and dont appreicate them. We have to tell them its not true! We love you guys! Please come work with us!
Bonus link: So you want to be an interaction designer?