Why do I keep going back to foss.in? Because I’m the kind of person who needs extrinsic motivation. That’s why having a good circle of friends with a positive attitude is so important to me. And that’s why the foss.in community is so important to me. Because one must always strive to be in an environment where you are “the dumbest guy in the room”, i.e., be surrounded by really really smart people, so that you are forced to work on raising your own level. That’s how I feel when I’m in the midst of fantastic people such as bluesmoon, t3rmin4t0r, Srinivas Raghavan, and so many others. They are perfectionists who deep-dive into anything they are passionate about, and are invariably good at whatever they focus on.

The Good

Attending foss.in/2009 felt great for me because I took comfort in the fact that there are still people out there who are passionate about code and passionate about software. That is becoming rarer and rarer off late. I think it’s the “5 year limit” that I have observed in batchmates, most of them don’t want to code any more, and have moved on to so many other fields. While that is okay, the problem is that it has become a fashion to dis IT and software field.

Another factor was that everything is in the cloud and everything is a website these days, so does open source as a process matter anymore? First of all, the applications are not open source and even if we have the code (rare situation), you and I can’t fix the application/website unless you host it yourself.

But the foss.in community made me remember the joy of coding and joy of hacking.

Kudos to Team Foss.in for making the only community event and only IT event that is worth attending.
It was fantastic to see how the concept of workouts had just taken off.
And everyone’s been saying that all the keynotes have been fantastic.

In case you are wondering, I’m not the only one who was so enthralled by the event, for example:

fossdotin_janakiramm

fossdotin_ramblinggeek

See Lakshman’s writeup on the same. And so on.

Bottom line? Shut up and hack!

The Bad

Will miss the direction of Atul Chitnis.

What was missing

What I felt was missing is a discussion on the state of the art of software in each field, not just specific PoTDs. And I think this is more of a community perspective rather than the organizers’ perspective — organizers just provide the platform, community provides the content, as Atul keeps reminding us.

For example, consider my pet topic, the state of NoSQL databases – what’s good, what’s not, is it strange or expected that so many of them have come up in the last 1-2 years and all of them are open source (or at least the ones that we hear of). Taking it a step further, how it affects other fields of software. I’ve attempted to ask this before in a session at barcamp on whether webapp frameworks will adapt to NoSQL.

Similarly, what is the future of compilers, will LLVM + clang replace GCC (as @artagnon was speculating)? Will WebKit and V8 take over the world and leave Mozilla + Tracemonkey behind? Why are there so few projects using AGPL? What does it take to get full database dumps out of Wikipedia ? Will open source phones never take off? How does Eucalyptus help have an alternative with EC2? How does appscale help have an alternative to GAE? And so on.

In toto, I think there are three parts to this and I believe only the third part of which is done well already by the community and organizers: (1) what are the different fields and layers of software, (2) what is the state of the art of open source software in those fields, (3) getting people started and involved. I feel that only when we think on these lines, we will achieve Atul’s stated vision of “open source being the mainstream, proprietary software being the special case”*.

Thoughts?

* No flamewars please. I believe that the world will be better off by having all the infrastructure as open source software and having only the business logic / trade secrets as the proprietary part. At each stage of evolution of software, the stack grows higher, and the infrastructure/open source stack can grow higher along with it. For example, Robot Open Source and the Hadoop umbrella.

  1. There are not enough good problems that tech startups are working on and there seems to be no shortage of funds, platforms and ecosystem partners willing to help startups. The ecosystem is hungry for successes.
  2. Product Management skills are the need of the hour, NOT talks about talks about opportunities in X sector, and so on. When there is no culture of knowing how to execute, rest of the topics are moot points.

⇒ Read more at our event coverage at StartupDunia.com.

Update: This has been cross-posted to the official NASSCOM Emerge blog.

I had a great time at BCB8. Even though I had ranted previously on the tech focus this time, the planners made it clear that all topics are welcome and Barcampers kept the same familiar atmosphere going.

To be honest, I don’t go to Barcamp for the sessions per se, it is mainly for the people and this is one of the most relaxed ways to catch up with friends and make new ones. I met a lot of people and had very good conversations.

Discussion on Mobile apps for India
Django intro by Lakshman

My own session on webdev frameworks and their relation to newer technologies such as cloud databases had a rocky start because there were lot of first-time Barcampers and were expecting a talk-style session. Luckily, I was saved by 3-4 guys in the audience who got it and we had a lively discussion. The takeaway is that, yes, there are interesting possibilities when we natively integrate our webdev frameworks and cloud databases (via modifying the ORMs) and cloud computing facilities. A few people were interested in my suggestion to carry the conversation forward in some sort of mailing list. So please join the “evolving-webdev” mailing list if you are interested in exploring these technologies.

My session on webdev & changing tech

The other interesting session I attended was on philosophies of yoga by Shashikant Joshi. As expected, he gave a very different take on yoga than what we normally hear. He started off by explaining the meaning of the word ‘yog’ as “state of mind” and what our ancient scriptures say on how to attain bliss and remove sorrow. It was hard for me to not be reminded of GTD philosophy, especially the “mind like water” concept. I felt guilty that there is so much already written by our ancestors that we ignore and wait for people to rediscover it and preach it.

I missed Shree Kumar’s calligraphy session because it was at the same time. Oh well.

Besides that, there was a whole lot of hallway conversations.

Gopal was teaching people how to solve a Rubik’s cube. He has it nailed down to a few algorithms, I can’t even fathom how he had the patience to derive those algorithms. We timed him solving it. The first time he took 1 min 57 seconds to solve it. The second time he took 1 min 36 seconds. Phew.

Gopal explaining his steps to others
Rubik's cube solved by Gopal

Then in another freewheeling conversation, we were talking about Zeno’s paradox and all sorts of stuff like that.

All in all, two non-stop days of fun reiterated why Barcamp remains one of my favorite events.

Thanks to all the planners (@ashwin, @daaku, @dkris, @fagunbhavsar, @hnprashanth, @viralsachde and others) who made it happen, and to Yahoo! for sponsoring the venue.

You can read more about what happened via the #bcb8 tag.

I quickly (read as “hastily”) put together this short presentation for a discussion session at the upcoming Barcamp. The question is “With the advent of cloud computing, cloud databases, RIAs, APIs, etc., are web developers and their frameworks evolving and keeping up with the times?”

If you are interested in this discussion, please click the “I Want to Attend” button on this session’s page at the BarCamp Bangalore website.

If there is not sufficient interest, I will drop this session because there seem to be 88 sessions registered already, I have no idea how so many sessions are going to fit into just 2 days.

For more background material on this topic, see my Website Making Howto wiki page.

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.

The weekend before last, BarCamp Bangalore 7 was held. The session that I was most looking forward to was the ‘cycling to work’ session initiated by Pradeep B V (of MapUnity fame). What made the session interesting was that people were asked to cycle to IIMB and showcase their bicycles in an outdoor session, and encourage others to take up cycling.

The idea by Pradeep to have it in the open area outside the cafeteria just after lunch was a brilliant marketing ploy, because people would just walk out of the cafeteria and then they would see all the cycles and then out of curiosity, they would come closer and end up chatting with the cyclists. It was nice to see people hopping on and going for rides just to check out the cycles.

The stars of the show were undoubtedly Vikram and Varun because of their cycling clothes and their advanced bikes which have features such as special shoes that lock into the pedals as well as ability to unhook the wheels for easy transportation.

We had a lot of fun talking to people and answering many questions from curious Barcampers and turned out to be a successful session. Among the curious people, there was also a reporter from the Bangalore Mirror. It turns out that we ended up in an article in their Sunday edition yesterday:

Photo of the Cycling To Work page in Bangalore Mirror on 21st September, 2008 Sunday

BANGALORE MIRROR, SEPTEMBER 21, 2008, Page 9 : Rising fuel costs, never-ending traffic jams, have made travelling quite a problem in Bangalore. So it came as no surprise that young techies, who cycle to work, created a stir at Barcamp 7 in IIM last Saturday – Renuka Phadnis

The Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore was full of activity last weekend. The auditorium was the venue for an interactive session of Headstart, a group that supports entrepreneurship in the technology sector. In the corridors and break-out spaces of the management school, there were parallel discussion sessions going on of Barcamp 7. But the one group that attracted the most attention here was the one that pedals their way to work. Varun, Vikram and Swaroop, the three directors of Ion Lab, cycle to their workplace.

And when they are stuck in any of Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams, the trio simply lift the bikes and walk out of the jam. Vikram used to cycle to his office in Bosch earlier and is still cycling to his new workplace. He cycles up to 50 km a day and has even pedaled to Mysore. The cycle he uses is a ‘Giant’ that has as an accessory shoes that swivel into the pedals of the cycle.

Varun has been cycling in Bangalore for six months after he got hooked on to it in the US.”A lot of people complain about the traffic but I like it,” he says. Once in a jam, he lifted the cycle and a guy in a car told him, “Dude, I am here stuck in this traffic and you are getting away?” He likes the fact that cycling keeps him fit too.

When you ask Swaroop if he does not find cycling a challenge in Bangalore, he says,
-“Cycling isn’t, but driving a car is!” He says it is a lot safer and easier in the city. He has been cycling from Jayanagar to Domlur for the past two years.

… (see the picture for the full article)

Factual errors aside, it is a good article and really encourages non-cyclist skeptics to consider cycling. The other upshot is that the red bicycle you see on the top of the page is mine, so if I ever want to sell it, I just have to say “As featured in the Bangalore Mirror”, heh. And also, this is the first time ‘Ion Lab’ has been mentioned in the press.

Let’s reiterate over the benefits of cycling to work:

  1. You do not need a separate time to exercise, because you’re cycling to work. You save one hour everyday.
  2. Save on fuel costs, and in turn make the world less reliant on oil fuels.
  3. Reach your workplace faster. It’s a myth that cycling is hard and slow and you’ll be late. On an average, I used to motorbike to my (ex-) Yahoo! office in Domlur in 45 minutes, but used to take 30 minutes on cycle.
  4. Don’t get stuck in traffic jams. Just lift your cycle and push it along on the sidewalk. (Please do not cycle on the sidewalk, you’ll be annoying pedestrians)
  5. A good exercise before you reach your workplace will really pump up the endorphins and put you in a positive mood to get lot of work done throughout the day.
  6. And you’ll be a lot healthier!

Convinced yet?

(more…)

I attended the proto.in 4 conference last week (held at the beautiful IIT Delhi campus) and had a very productive and thought-provoking time.

proto.in

Day 1 was the fastrack “startup school” sessions.

The keynote session was Kiran Karnik, ex-President of NASSCOM, who pointed out that this “recession” is not a bad thing. Just like the BPO and Outsourcing outfits reinvented themselves in the last dotcom bust, this is a great opportunity to reinvent ourselves again during this phase. Why? Because when things are going good, nobody is willing to change or tinker with the processes. And when things are not going well, people are willing to take more chances and bet on newer/different things so that they can survive, such as big companies working with startups or risking new ideas.

Kiran Karnik

The story of BharatMatrimony.com by the founder Murugavel Janakiram was inspiring. The concept maybe so simple and maybe even creating such a website maybe simple, but the kind of business model, customer understanding and outreach, and constant trial of new ideas that they went through was simply amazing. For example, sticking to his gumption that the site should be a paid one and that was the only viable business model, to things like collection of payment at the doorstep. After this talk, I had new-found admiration of his matrimonial site.

Murugavel Janakira

The third session was a talk on “Business is a Game” by Bhavin Turakhia, of Directi. I had never known about Bhavin until this day, and after this talk, most of the audience were his new fans, including me. The first audience question was “Do you have an opening in your company? I want to join.”

Bhavin Turakhia

The talk was about the lessons we should learn from games and sports, and how to apply it to business. And it made so much sense. Sometimes it is the basics that we overlook that make all the difference. This was pretty much in line with my off-late philosophy of “Enough Fundas. Back to Fundamentals.”

Bhavin said that he has read many books and stories about successful companies, and trying to distill why they succeeded, he came down to just two things to run a successful company:

  1. Gather the right players
  2. Empower them to make the right decisions, most of the time.

He said the first point is fairly obvious but hard to do. In this talk, he concentrated on the second point, and gave 7 principles on how to do achieve this:

  1. Teach the Game
    • When you play a game, say cricket, all the team players need to know how to play the game – the rules, the strategies, the howtos. If only few of them know it, and the rest don’t, the team collectively will suffer, right? Same for business.
  2. Share the macrovision
    • What is the final objective? Why are you playing this game?
  3. Near-term targets.
    • A team usually plays for a season or a championship. That consists of multiple games, which means there are milestones and targets to achieve. Same for business.
  4. Keep score
    • Bhavin says he likes games like cricket where every kind of statistic possible is analyzed, right from the average score of the batsman on this particular ground to the average scores of the teams overseas, etc.
    • In a game, the score is always visible on a public scoreboard, which drives the team in achieving real scores.
    • Recommends reading a book by John Hayes called “Open Book Management”
    • Measure everything. Don’t focus on more than 2-3 critical numbers. This reminded me of a quote by Bob Parsons (of GoDaddy fame): “Anything that is measured and watched, improves.”
    • Keep changing critical numbers.
    • Explain why these critical numbers are critical.
    • Statistics are fun, make it a game, have real targets, because no one wants to fail a target.
    • Bhavin explained that most of Directi employees have 3-4 monitors at their desk – 1-2 for work, the other 1-2 for monitoring live statistics. People love to watch scoreboards and feel joy when they achieve their targets whether they are number of downloads or response times.
  5. Line of sight
    • Each player should be able to link their actions to the outcome of a game i.e. how they contributed to the outcome directly.
    • This makes the player feel he/she is contributing to the team and feel he/she is a part of the team.
  6. Celebrate your victories
    • Celebrate the small milestones, especially achieving targets.
    • Have a Victory Party
    • The act of recognizing > how you recognize
  7. Align everyone’s interests

    • To the victor(s), belong the spoils
    • In a game, everyone’s equal and aligned, no separate us vs management, because success of each other is interlinked
    • Linden Labs has an internal website to “give love” to other employees who have done good work
    • How direct is the co-relation?
    • Company performs best when its people see themselves as partners in the business
    • American universities are run mostly by student communities and the knowledge is passed on to each new batch. And there’s this feeling that “I belong to my alma mater” vs “I belong to my organization” which people hardly say.
  8. When asked if these ideas put a constraint on the size of the company, Bhavin said this is the only way that you can scale a company. To specifically note, if everybody is not able to take the same decision as you, you become the bottleneck ⇒ size constraint on the company.

(more…)

Yesterday, I attended The Smart Techie Startup
City
event. It was
intended as a showcase of startups as well as for
learning/sharing/mentoring.

I had taken some notes during the day. As I was expanding it into
a blog post, I realized I was just adding filler words which was
a waste of bits, so here it is as-is:

  • Ashish Gupta, Helion VC on “Concept to Success : Milestones for
    startups”

    • India is a startup (positive way of looking at things)
      • High energy
      • Lots of growth
      • Small absolute number (relatively)
      • Little infrastructure or process
      • Lack of talent
      • Lots of optimism
      • Need to innovate to survive
      • ⇒ Once in a lifetime opportunity
    • Significant change in dynamics (negative way of looking at it)
      • Whatever can be made efficient will be done so.
        • We can in turn get bangalored and some other country will
          benefit.
      • Creative folks will thrive.
      • ⇒ We have no choice.
    • Hardest evolutionary steps
      • Those that requires behavior change
        • For example, starting to think “Become cash flow positive”
        • Next level CEO, process, tech, business model, etc.
    • Put in place metrics to measure everything – will help identify
      whether one has already hit an inflection point.
    • Rules of thumb
      1. Focus on customer/issue
      2. Focus on continuous improvement
      3. Intellectual honesty
      4. Results matter – only for MEASURING (measure progress on
        a larger scale)
      5. ⇒ Same rules for person, family, company

Smart Techie Startup City 01
Smart Techie Startup City 02
Smart Techie Startup City 03
Smart Techie Startup City 05

(more…)

Day 2 of Barcamp Bangalore No. 6 (Apr 20 Sun) started off on
a pleasant note because I just had to stop and admire the greenery of
the IIMB campus.

BarcampBangalore6 28

Had an impromptu discussion on development on Nokia Phones with
Ashwin and another person who worked
in Nokia. Surprised to hear that it costs so much!

Then, attended a session on “Pattern Labs” who are trying to create
a better knowledge base for GAP, a conglomerate of NGOs for
sustainable development. What they’re trying to achieve was quite
admirable and definitely needed, but for the life of me, I just
couldn’t understand what they’re trying to do in this Pattern Labs and
what kind of software they’re trying to develop.

This was followed by a 5-10 min discussion on Web 2.0 for K-12
education, it was interesting to note that there were few success
stories where kids used a wiki to collaboratively write a poem using
the “diamond pattern” they teach in school and were benefited by this
approach.

Then Rajiv Poddar initiated
a discussion on the legal status of VoIP in India and why there should
be a correction. Basically, VoIP calls cannot reach a PSTN/PLMN i.e.
landline or mobile phones in India. Why? Because it will hurt VSNL’s
revenues. An equally relevant issue is that VSNL is the only gateway
in India trying to control all traffic for no real reason. But why is
VoIP important? Because it makes phone calls damn inexpensive and
there are many innovations that can be done around it – right from
system integration to enabling live voice discussions for a website,
all at a low cost.

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BarcampBangalore6 32

Rajiv equated this situation to the telephony space – the government
was afraid that BSNL won’t make money, but once the space was opened,
everyone now knows the story of the rapid growth of telephony and
communication in India, after all India is the fastest growing market.
It did more good than harm.

Previously I had known that there are some legal issues with VoIP but
had never ventured to learn about it until I happened to walk into
this session. A group called Voice of
VoIP
was created on the
spot to take the discussion forward and see if something can be done
about it.

Then I went into a session on Scoping, Closures and Objects in
Javascript. The speaker Venkatesh Choppella was a professor at IIIT,
Trivandrum and held a Ph.D in computer languages. I was mighty
impressed that there are such lecturers out there! Interestingly, he
teaches JavaScript as the first language for some of his classes at
his university. I learned a bit about JavaScript and language theory.

BarcampBangalore6 33
BarcampBangalore6 34

Then, Vinayak Hegde had an interesting session on High performance
websites. Again, the crowd had a lively discussion on tips and tricks
right from something called “CSS sprites” to using YSlow, Minify,
Expires Headers, ETags, and so on.

BarcampBangalore6 35
BarcampBangalore6 36

And in between all this, I met many people. In fact, when we were
mingling, few of us decided to go to the Coffee Day outlet in the next
building to get something cold. It was such a sultry weather. And
there we found, Shourya and another college student (Jayanth?) playing
guitars and singing Def Leppard songs!

There were some amazingly funny and insightful discussions going on as
well, many of which I can’t write here, but I’ll especially remember
Kushal Das’ stories. I never thought someone had the guts to pull off
giving an Intel 865 motherboard to his girlfriend on Valentine’s Day!
And they even have fights over GCC. Wow,
that’s like a geek’s dream, right? Anyway, I wish him all the best,
hope they’re together for a long time and more.

BarcampBangalore6 38
BarcampBangalore6 40
BarcampBangalore6 41
BarcampBangalore6 42

The day ended with a feedback session on the good, bad and ugly of
Barcamp. Most people had suggestions and cribs but they said they got
used to it once they understood the idea of how Barcamps work – it’s
meant to be not organized and scheduled properly. Things should
happen on-the-fly. And again, people asked for video archives of the
sessions because they missed many due to the parallel tracks. Simple
answer – get a video camera and record. If 4-5 people can volunteer,
the problem is solved. The real problem is not enough people willing
to do these things. Barcamp works only when everyone pitches in,
whether you are initiating a session, volunteering or at least putting
your name on the wiki.

BarcampBangalore6 47
BarcampBangalore6 50

There were more discussions, but in the end people agreed that the
current format is great and nothing needs to be changed for number 7.

Bottom line: Adjust maadi. Don’t make it a “conference”!

adjust maadi @ barcamp bangalore 6

There are only a few things that can get me high – running, passionate
techie discussions, meeting new people, and interesting and insightful
conversations. I had a good dose of all of these in two days, so BCB6
was simply well-spent time for me. And it looks like many other
campers
feel the same
way as well.

P.S. If you want to be updated on when’s the next barcamp, just follow
the mailing
list
and the
website.