My favorite session at proto.in 5th edition was by Atul Chitnis who reinforced the basics of business. He made one remark which seems obvious but something that we don’t put in practice:

“Today is history. Build for the future so that your product can be ready just in time.”

As opposed to only thinking of right now, taking a year to build it and realize it is no longer needed, or more likely, it is no longer the way things are done.

This statement immediately came to my mind when I was reading the announcement of ‘Triple Play’ by Airtel:

Rs. 999 per month which gives 135 channels including 256 kbps broadband speed with unlimited download and a landline connection.

First, you can imagine internet access completely on the television in homes, say in a year or so.

Second, if you combine this with their Online Desktop feature(1), and you can imagine how people will be accessing computing on their TV just a year down the lane without ever buying a traditional desktop computer. And best of all, users can easily install/uninstall applications (on rental basis) without hassles/worries/dangers of “ruining your computer” since Airtel will be hosting the computing facility.

The question is: If you are a company (whether big or small) in the tech space, do your products and services take this into account?

Similarly, we all know that netbooks are the rage now. Atul predicted that these are stop-gap measures until people realize that they can do the same things with slightly higher-end phones.

Again, ask the same question above.

Technology indeed changes so fast and changes our lifestyle along with it.

Other useful points from the talk:

  • It is not the tools you use. It’s how you use them.
  • Those who forget history (i.e. learn from others’ mistakes) are doomed to repeat it.
  • If product is good, price is right, people will buy it.
  • A product is more than just code. A customer wants a solution and a long term relationship with the service provider.
  • Today is history. Build for the future so that your product can be ready in time.
  • Markets can be created.
  • Hint: Assume connectivity. Local storage no longer matters.
  • Biggest products are mobile products now. Simple products, not big things.
  • Advertising doesn’t pay. Unless you’re Yahoo or Google.
  • VC funding is not a viable business model. Unless you’re a VC.

(1) Has this service actually taken off? Who uses it, I wonder.

I read Outliers, The STORY of SUCCESS by Malcolm Gladwell last week and found it fascinating.

Here’s an excerpt:

Cultural legacies *matter*, and once we’ve seen the surprising effects of such things as power distance and numbers that can be said in a quarter as opposed to a third of a second, it’s hard not to wonder how many other cultural legacies have an impact on our twenty-first-century intellectual tasks.

What redeemed the life of a rice farmer, however, was the nature of the work. It was a lot like the garment work done by the Jewish immigrants to New York. It was *meaningful*.

First of all, there is a clear relationship in rice farming between effort and reward. The harder you work a rice field, the more it yields.

Second, it’s complex work. The rice farmer isn’t simply planting in the spring and harvesting in the fall. He or she effectively runs a small business, juggling a family workforce, hedging uncertainty through seed selection, building and managing a sophisticated irrigation system, and coordinating the complicated process of harvesting the first crop while simultaneously preparing the second crop.

And, most of all, it’s autonomous. The peasants of Europe worked essentially as low-paid slaves of an aristocratic landlord, with little control over their own destinies. But China and Japan never developed that kind of oppressive feudal system, because feudalism simply can’t work in a rice economy. Growing rice is too complicated and intricate for a system that requires farmers to be coerced and bullied into going out into the fields each morning. By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, landlords in central and Southern China had an almost completely hands-off relationship with their tenants: they would collect a fixed rent and let farmers go about their business.

Here’s a second excerpt:

Every four years, an international group of educators administers a comprehensive mathematics and science test to elementary and junior high students around the world called TIMMS. The point is to compare the educational achievement of one country with another’s.

When students sit down to take the TIMSS exam, they also have to fill out a questionnaire. It asks them all kinds of things, such as what their parents’ level of education is, and what their views about math are, and what their friendss are like. It’s not a trivial exercise. It’s about 120 questions long. In fact, it is so tedious and demanding that many students leave as many as ten or twenty questions blank.

Now, here’s the interesting part. As it turns out, the average number of items answered on that questionnaire varies from country to country. It is possible, in fact, to rank all the participating countries according to how many items their students answer on the questionnaire. Now, what do you think happens if you compare the questionnaire rankings with the math rankings on the TIMSS? **They are exactly the same.** In other words, countries whose students are willing to concentrate and sit still long enough and focus on answering every question in an endless questionnaire are the same countries whose students do the best job of solving math problems.

Think about this another way. Imagine that every year, there was a Math Olympics in some fabulous city in the world. And every country in the world sent its own team of one thousand eighth graders. Boe’s point is that we could predict precisely the order in which every country would finish in the Math Olympics *without asking a single math question*. All we would have to do is give them some task measuring how hard they are willing to work. In fact, we wouldn’t even have to give them a task. We should be able to predict which countries are best at math simply by looking at which national cultures place the highest emphasis on effort and hard work.

So, which places are at the top of both lists? The answer shouldn’t surprise you: Singapore, South Korea, China (Taiwan), Hong Kong, and Japan. What those five have in common, of course, is that they are all cultures shaped by the tradition of wet-rice agriculture and meaningful work. They are the kinds of places where, for hundreds of years, penniless peasants, slaving away in the rice paddies three thousand hours a year, said things to one another like “No one who can rise before dawn three hundred sixty days a year fails to make his family rich.”

See how the two excerpts are related? :) This explains how your cultural legacies matter (and don’t worry, maths is not the criterion for success, this is just one example in the book). Another example is how cultural legacies are related to plane crashes of the respective national airlines.

There’s a lot more in the book like the Matthew Effect, the 10,000-Hour Rule, why “practical intelligence” matters, why “concerted cultivation” matters, about the KIPP schools, and so on.

The book is a must-read IMHO, just for the thought-provocativeness, even if not how to learn to be “successful.”

Most of what I learned about programming was during my first year at Yahoo!. I wrote so much Perl code and dove into naive attempts at distributed computing, and the like.

I was pretty proud of my code and that I put in hard work, and was vindicated when I went back to meet old friends at Yahoo! and one of the new recruits actually praised my Perl code (because he was now maintaining it). I was taken aback. Why? That was probably the only time in my life I was proud of the code I wrote and someone actually commended on it.

But I’ve stagnated in the past three years and have not been adding to my knowledge even though I’ve been working, meeting deadlines and earning my bread. On the surface, I’m adding skills to my resumé but inside I know I should be learning more.

My theme for the next 8 months is to focus on getting back to the basics, to relearn the fundamentals and get back the joy of programming.

Ever since I’ve been working for myself, I’ve been very happy to take technical decisions and seeing it right through to the code. I get a kick out of it. I need more of that.

I’m hoping to read more books like Ship It! and The Pragmatic Programmer vs. spending time on blogs.

I’m hoping to spend more of those-moments-when-you-need-distractions at Stack Overflow and technical mailing lists vs. reading opinion / “news” sites.

Of course, it’s not just about more information but rather about getting into the flow, getting into the mood.

I will try to be at the bottom of things rather than on top of things, although its hard to let go of the addiction of trying to be “inbox zero.”

In the big picture, there’s no reason to have this goal. I can just keep on going as-is. But my life is so empty without having something to work on. That’s the thing about goals.

Let’s see how far it goes.

Do you find it useful to have a time-bound dominant theme for personal development? Have you thought about what will you learn this year?

Of course, ideas are cheap, execution is everything. So I’m getting back to coding right now.