Top Takeaways from Nasscom Product Conclave 2014

Insights into startup ecosystems of the US and Israel

Technoratti of India descended to Bangalore for the annual Nasscom Product Conclave 2014 on 30th and 31st October. Here are some top takeaways from the conference with a few from the Pune Connect event that happened on 8th Nov.

New startups are being launched at a feverish pace in India. India has 3100 startups-taking it to # 3 ahead of Israel which has only 1000 . Technologies and infrastructure to build software products have become available and the domestic market has grown to become significant enough to take note. Devices at the edge and powerful technologies at the back end are throwing up unprecedented opportunities for startups to innovate. App to App communication is exceeding browsing traffic. John McIntyre and Zack Weisfeld presented the evolution of startup ecosystems in the Silicon Valley and Israel.

Startup EcosystemStartup Ecosystem

Startup Ecosystem

Strong universities which acted like feeders and presence of prominent MNCs provided the infrastructure needed for healthy startups in Israel. Few initial successes provided the much needed boost for the startup activity to take off. Military spending and a lenient tax regime by the Government helped. The Israel Government also promoted VCs and provided exit routes.

History of Silicon valley is similar in the role played by the US Government, world war II and electronic warfare research at MIT, Harvard and Stanford. John McIntyre said that Silicon Valley is a state of mind. “Free flow of people and ideas is natural. The team you build is more important than the idea itself. There is no stigma attached to failure- you have to fail and reinvent to finally succeed. Innovation happens when you address customer desire in a financially viable product that is technically feasible. Silicon valley is a melting pot where the magic happens because of diversity of people.”

India is following the footsteps of these countries by starting a Government funded innovation -the Aadhar card program. 700 million cards were issued in 4 years with a team of 20+ developers. Aadhar has developed an API for authentication and KYC (Know Your Customer) which is being consumed by about 500 independent developers. The Aadhar team showed some innovations that will drive the future roadmap. One of them developed at the MIT media labs was an app that does iris scans using 1.2 megapixel camera and retina display available in some mobile phones today. Soon Aadhar could make one click two factor authentication (like ApplePay) possible in rural India!

Like Appstore and Google Play there are many other platforms like Salesforce, Facebook, LinkedIn and Azure that have their own ecosystem of apps. Aadhar could become one such ecosystem.

Dhiraj Rajaram of Mu Sigma cautioned that we shouldn’t get carried away by the hype associated with product startups and seriously look at services. Services can dynamically provide solutions on the fly to problems as they arise whereas static products solve specific problems they are meant to solve. Tarken Maner also pointed our that out of $3.1 trillion global IT market only $1200 billion is accounted for by hardware and software products- balance $1.9 trillion is accounted for by services.

Tips on business and marketing

Business applications want to abstract trust broking to aggregators of services like Ola Cabs or Flipkart . Promod Haque said that App to App communication is exceeding browsing traffic. As users are demanding mobile first ; some applications are moving to mobile only. Zomato scrapped their web interface,built a mobile only app and then moved to build desktop app after 6 months. Omnichannel seems to be catching up – it not only accounts for various form factors but integrates digital and physical channels of conducting business. Users get a seamless experience across multiple channels – they can start in a new channel from where they left in an old channel. Tarken Maner said that you can strategically use channel to differentiate just the way you traditionally used customer profile or product features to differentiate. B.V.Jagdeesh said as business applications are starting to look more like consumer apps;  B2B market provides more opportunities than B2C. Once you acquire 20 customers in the B2B market you are safe to start building your business on that foundation. Though B2C appears more attractive ; sustainable customer acquisition in large numbers makes it more difficult.

Dhaval Patel of Kissmetrics described how their company scaled its outbound marketing communication. He said that they focused on low cost channels like Twitter and stayed away from paid conversions. They focused on creating content that their customers loved. He advised startups to join professional groups on social media like LinkedIn to study others’ content including competitors’ content and add a new twist to put across a different point of view. Once the content is up the same can be pumped up first by e-mail and then by social media campaigns. Both e-mail and social media are complimentary tools and need to be used in conjunction.

Campaigns need to be measured by studying sharing and social engagement metrics . Qualaroo is a great tool to ask questions to visitors. Vanity metrics can kill ROI . Metrics become meaningful only when they reach high thousands. Kissmetrics published over 50 info graphics and received more than 20k comments. Info graphics get hundreds of shares on LinkedIn, FB  and Twitter.

Dhaval advised startups to ” Treat content creation as customer service. Measure and optimize your content. Do a/b testing , stick to a regular schedule to publish content. Images are very important for content to make people click. Create content that teaches. Blogs are cost effective e.g.Kissmetrics’ cost per sign up is as low as $7. Always position top content in left panel so that it’s easy to find.”

Product Tips

Aakrit Vaish  co-founder of Haptik Inc said that mobile first is not just a business strategy but it changes the way we build and use applications. He said that everyone at Haptik uses low bandwidth 2g connection so that they can live the user experience of an average user. He said one should use mobile web if the use case starts in the browser e.g. with Google search- this way the user can reach your application in 1 click instead of 6 needed to download and install an app. Building an app would make more sense if one were leveraging native capabilities like geo-location or push notification. He said users download and install a number of free apps which they eventually delete.

Omni-channel means unification of web, mobile and in store experience- any user switching channels starts where he left off. Lowe’s – essentially a brick and mortar company now offers omni-channel experience to its customers. Associates who walk the floors of Lowe’s stores can capture the conversations about all the products and share it so that information is not lost. Product locator kiosks placed at prominent locations in the stores give stock position. Lowes planned ahead for iOS-8 and launched touch Id. They armed their associates with 42000 mobile phones not only for better operations but for better connection with customers. With more than 500K products online Lowe’s is a good example of digital-physical blur. Tesla is another example of digital-physical blur. Its more software than car.

Ramesh Raskar of MIT Media Labs shared his advice on how to invent. He explained it with his idea hexagon with some examples. The hexagon has a question at the center – “Given X whats next?” and the 6 corners show ways of inventing based on current state X.

Idea Hexagon

Idea Hexagon

  1. Xd– Add a new dimension. E.g. if Flickr shared photos.Youtube shares videos.
  2. X+Y. Pair X with Y – more dissimilar Y would be better. E.g. Retina display for eye checkup
  3. Xv – Given a hammer get all nails. E.g. Use mobile phone as a camera.
  4. ~X- Do exactly the opposite. E.g. reverse auction, toll free calls.
  5. X++- Add an adjective like faster, cheaper, cooler, more democratic to X. E.g. Skype for cheaper international calls.
  6. X^- Given a nail get all hammers – E.g. LensBricks- appstore for cameras.

Tips on culture

 Employees are demanding enterprises to provide more freedom. InMobi has given this freedom to bring about a cultural change in their company. They have stopped using traditional way of hiring – now they follow Hiring 2.0 to hire the best teams in hackathons conducted by them. Employees built their office to suit their liking instead of the standard cubicles.

Naveen Tewari said that “You can get 100X the valuation if you get the culture right. Culture is proving to be the disruptive differentiator.” He defined culture as experiences that the company gives to its customers and employees. Change, innovation, fast failure and learning ,fast iterative growth are difficult to implement without the right culture. InMobi has implemented an open door policy for employees who could leave to do their own startup and come back if they failed. They focused on growing instead of managing people. They did away with the performance appraisal system. Connecting with families including grandparents and also with ex-employees built the company’s soul.

Jim Ehrhart repeated what was said in an earlier post – boundaries of enterprises are blurring as we move from workforce to crowdsourcing. IT barely have the tight grip on what people do as they used to have. Employees want to use apps for everything they do. Many enterprises are planning to build their own enterprise appstore.

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Lean Hiring- An Experience Report

In an earlier post we saw how organizations can create an ecosystem to attract top notch talent. But that is a long term vision which will take time to implement. How do we address more immediate hiring needs? In this post I will try to apply the learning from Lean and Agile principles and practices like Kanban to the process of hiring.

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Let us first compare hiring with software development to find out similarities between the two

Similar Problems- Comparison Between Software Development and Hiring

  • We are not sure about the outcome when we start: Software evolves as new information comes in. Similarly job requirements change to accommodate new needs or bar is lowered for reasons of non-availability and urgency. Sometimes a professional is internally transferred from another project and the need to hire simply goes away.
  • Large Batch Sizes (A.K.A. Waterfall model of development): If you think of software development and hiring as workflows; often managers try to maximize utilization of resources at each step of the workflow by handing over work in large batch sizes. Its not unusual for an HR manager to source more resumes to improve the chances of finding the right candidate. This results in pile up of half done WIP before the bottleneck, which is wasteful. Theory Of Constraints  and Kanban address this problem by putting a WIP Limit on the size of the batch to be handed over at each step of the workflow. Using Kanban to manage hiring is not new.
  •  Delayed Feedback : Large batch sizes also result in longer iterations and delayed feedback resulting in wasted cycles of recruiters and developers working on what they think is needed which often turns out to be different. We load the hiring managers by arranging many interviews without asking feedback about the interviews that have already happened. We need to ask,learn from the feedback and use that learning to improve the quality of candidates in subsequent cycles.
  • Ambiguous requirements: Its not unusual to start developing a software product with some high level idea and a few whiteboard sketches. Similarly we often hear managers giving high level directives to hire “smart developers” or “kick-ass salesmen”.
  • Dynamic marketplace: Both software product and hiring opportunities are not permanent. They go away with changes due to technology, competition, new ideas and realization.
  • Waste resulting from unused code or resumes sourced: We often write more code than required. We often build more features thinking we are adding value. Similarly we often source too many resumes and interview too many candidates to improve our chances of finding the best match. Unused code and resumes represent the waste we should be attempting to minimize.
  • Vague acceptance criteria and definition of done: Software development and hiring can go on in perpetual loops because the end states are not well defined. Both software development and hiring reach states where doing more work would cost more than the value you get out of it. That’s when you should stop. There is no definition of 100% completion. But the good part is you can start using the software even if all its features are not yet implemented. Similarly you can start using a team that is not yet completely staffed. Best value is derived by prioritizing must have features in software or must have skills while hiring.

Here are some useful tips to make hiring process quicker and more efficient.  In the spirit of continuous experimentation we tried adopting the proven and well tested lean and agile practices to streamline hiring in my company.

Agile and Lean Principles Applied to Hiring

In an earlier post we had seen how doing painful things more frequently reduces the pain. We tried to make the hiring process less painful by doing the following –

  • Short iterations with quick feedback :  Long and “hyped up resumes” were consuming a lot of our recruiter’s and hiring manager’s time. We overcame this problem by using a 500 character micro-resume covering important facts including relevant skills, project experience, notice period and expected compensation. This semi-automatically generated micro-resume was made actionable with “detailed resume”, “accept”, “reject” and “call” links. Hiring managers were encouraged to view these on their mobile phones to provide quick feedback. The printed version of this micro resume also helped us populate the Kanban board.
  • Using the learning from the feedback : The recruiters asked the hiring managers to give a good idea of “must have” and “good to have” skills. Based on this information the recruiters shortlisted top 3 candidates whose micro-resumes were shared with the hiring managers via email and text message. We waited for the hiring manager’s response before sharing any more micro-resumes. One such iteration ideally got over within a day. At the end of the day we either had a shortlist of selected candidates or valuable learning that improved the next iteration. Due to the “anytime anywhere” nature of mobile phones; iterations were quicker where the hiring manager was more mobile savvy.
  • Small batch size: Instead of inundating the hiring manager with a number of resumes ; we put a limit of 3 as stated above– which forced the recruiters to do a lot of groundwork to select the top 3 resumes from a couple of dozen that would satisfy the selection criteria. Smaller batch size also forced the recruiter to do a lot of groundwork and research before ranking a candidate. As seen in an earlier post ; instead of relying only on the information in the applicant’s resume we leveraged additional information available in social media platforms such as LinkedIn, StackOverflow and GitHub to determine the ranks. This motivated the hiring managers to be more responsive as it reduced the number of pending cases needing their attention. They were also more willing to provide quick feedback to enable the recruiter to learn from it and provide better choice in the subsequent cycles. In fact in some cases the feedback came immediately as the hiring manager disagreed with the ranking given by the recruiter.
  •  Prioritization of requirements: While understanding the requirements we decided to check the most difficult constraints first. In the diagram below ; you can see the order in which we evaluated the constraints. This made the job of selecting top 3 resumes out of all the resumes relatively easy. This Job requirements matrix was filled in presence of the hiring manager. Limited space provided forced the hiring manager to think really hard before writing down the requirements in the appropriate space provided.

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  • Planning /prioritizing interviews: We always had the most suitable candidate in the backlog the next to be interviewed. Often its hard to get suitable time slots from good candidates, and recruiters end up scheduling a less suitable candidate ahead of more suitable one. We made it clear to the recruiters that Its not necessary to use all the time made available by the interviewers. Interviewer’s time is a scarce resource which needs to be utilized more judiciously. Moreover if the interviewer rejects the candidate; learning from rejection of a stronger candidate is more valuable than that from rejection of a weaker one. We always played our best card.
  • Timeboxing: Whatever happens one has to conclude the process at some point. Many times you don’t get exactly what you want but you must staff the position for business to carry on. Prioritizing and having a backup candidate in case the best candidate doesn’t show up are some of the precautionary measures one has to resort to under time pressure. Like a truly agile process we kept some of the unmet requirements for the next round of hiring and had a retrospective to formalize the learning from the previous round.
  • WIP Limit: Having too many candidates interviewed  results in a longer hiring cycle. It also results in inefficient use of interviewer’s time. The number in bracket under each step (as shown in the diagram at the top) on the Kanban board is the WIP Limit. E.g. we can’t have more than 3 candidates waiting for preliminary interview. We“pulled” a candidate from shortlist only after one of the three interviews happened and we got the feedback. This enabled us to learn from the feedback and to apply that learning to decide the next candidate .

Hiring 2.0- More Efficient and Effective

General frustration with the process of hiring.

In spite of wide application of technology in the process of hiring –with latest social media channels like Linked In automating the search and selection process ; there is widespread frustration with the delays, arbitrariness and ambiguity inherent to it.  There have been many attempts to automate the hiring process. Finally we have come to conclude that its impossible to remove the human element. Thus its hard to quickly scale the process of hiring to meet sudden rise in demand.

To add to the woe of the HR manager, its no longer enough to go through the resumes- there is lot more information available on social media channels. Importance of resumes is waning– postings in social media reveal what the resume does’t. Ensuring proper skill and capability fit is not enough. Hiring mistakes are common in companies where only job related skills, experience and qualification are evaluated while hiring. The selected candidate has to gel well with the team – for which we need to look at his social graph, likes and dislikes, hobbies, values and beliefs.

We need to look at new ways of staffing our teams – the traditional resume-interview-offer process is too slow and error prone. But before that lets see how the organizations themselves are evolving.

Changing face of the organization

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As we saw in this earlier posting here – we need to implement cultural and structural changes – make organizations more cross-functional and starfishlike for social business to become a true engine of growth.

There are other reasons why organizational structures are challenged. With more VUCA business environment; organizations have to empower individuals to engage is smaller and more frequent transactions using their own smart devices. The BYOD movement is catching up and organizational structures are changing in tandem. In an earlier article we saw how BYOD is impacting Organizational Structure. Consumerization of the enterprise and bottom up transformation is driving corporates to structure themselves like communities.

Software product companies building products in an uncertain environment  – no matter how big or small are being run like startups. The Lean Startup approach is increasingly used by established organizations like Intuit. Intuit calls itself a startup that is 30 years old. Their cross functional teams can include anyone including HR and Legal professionals. As we all know small, cross-functional teams are the primary building blocks of Lean and Agile organizations.

We are also seeing more and more teams are geographically distributed. Automattic – the organization behind WordPress a few months back had 230+ employees distributed across 190 locations. They work from home. Geographical location really doesn’t matter. Geography is History.

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Hiring 2.0

Let us examine the changing face of hiring in the new age enterprises

  • In some reputed companies most hiring happens at the entry level. These companies have been developing good relations with educational institutes from where they hire summer interns- who are often hired by executives who are most likely alumni of the same institute. These interns under the guidance of their seniors work on interesting projects that test technical skills and ability to be a team player. This mentorship chain dates back to several years.
  • Many companies prefer outsourcing to hiring their own teams. Jobs needing skills that aren’t  the “Core Competencies” can be outsourced to derive economic benefits.

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  • Using social media to generate dialogue and engagement – both internal and external are important for getting talented people interested in your company. Enterprises are 3 to 4 years behind individuals in their adoption of social media tools –but the trend is positive and they are catching up. My company actively promotes talent communities such as Technext  or Google Developers Group. Many companies use talent communities to attract talent. Organizations have to consciously make their projects interesting.
  • Open Source software projects exemplify how communities demand by publishing their wish-lists. Success of the product is easily measured by the number of downloads and usage analytics. Communities of users also act as customer support teams by posting commonly faced problems and solutions on platforms like StackOverflow. Developers from the community who want to add new features are allowed to commit if their code is good-  a lightweight hiring process. Anyone is free to fork out his own project and hope to attract users to her own flavor of the product.
  • Every applicant is hired on trial in Automattic. This makes the initial screening and interviewing less tenuous. She is assigned a new guide every week and she is required to provide customer support by closing as many tickets as she can. She is evaluated on quality and quantity of work before she is hired.
  • Recently I attended the startup weekend – in which teams got formed as aspirants attracted members by pitching their ideas on Friday night. It’s a self selection process where members join startups that are appealing and where they can add most value. If the startup manages to get the right team their chances of success are higher and vice versa. More and more companies like Intuit are giving freedom to employees to solve business problems by forming their own teams that experiment to validate hypotheses – exactly as in The Lean Startup Model. My company has promoted an incubator where young and energetic teams work on cutting edge technologies to build their own product ideas. Those who fail are likely to get hired as employees – this provides a safety net that budding entrepreneurs need to improve their ability to take risks. Teams that come together by a self-selection process seem to be the future of hiring that can be effective and scalable.

SMAC Social-Mobile-Analytics-Cloud is more powerful than sum of its parts

 

Social Media  , Mobile Apps, Big Data Analytics and Cloud computing are four distinct technology areas that are seen rapidly evolving. I had an earlier posting about this Four Way Confluence. There are many products that leverage one of these- but the real power is derived by products that use two or more of these in combination. These areas are very interdependent and in fact consumer grade enterprise applications and apps can only be delivered by using all four in tandem as shown in the video. Industry leaders have coined a short single acronym SMAC to indicate the synergy and cohesiveness of these four areas. Let us examine how leveraging one technology area without the other would be limiting.

Synergy between Big Data back end And Social Media interface

Facebook users population exceeds 1.1 billion. Other social media are behind but all of them are generating huge data in text, photo and video form which can be mined by marketers, researchers , recruiters  and providers of numerous services – only if we have tools to handle such unprecedented volumes and variety of data that is coming in faster than we can process them. Big Data or NoSQL databases like Hadoop, MondoDB and Cassandra use massively parallel processing to deal with Big Data. The explosion of data can be harnessed for proper use by these tools.

Also social media like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn use big data analytics when they promote the usage by suggesting friends, trending topics and building social graphs. When I follow someone on twitter ; I instantly get more suggestions which are a result of quickly mining all the tweets for lexical similarities – which is done at lightning speeds by massively parallel processing afforded by big data tools.

Synergy Between Cloud Storage And Big Data back end

Its unimaginable to have large volumes of data without proper management of the same. The need to have backup and disaster recovery process can’t be overemphasized. Cloud offers virtual storage as in the case of Amazon S3, which can grow on demand. No need to worry about installing large hardware and configuring the same as the existing infrastructure deals with data overflow. Cloud computing paradigm allows you to expand or contract storage by merely running a few commands to manage clusters of servers that process big data in massively parallel processing. Cloud based services are now evolving further to offer not only storage but ingestion and processing of big data . Big Data can’t be moved due to its volumes and it needs to be consumed at its source. Ubiquitous nature of cloud storage allows one to capture data near the source no matter where on earth it is.

Synergy between Mobile Apps  And Social Media interface 

More than 40% of social media updates are originating on mobile devices today. In fact there are many people who experienced internet for the first time on their smartphones. Be it pictures or videos or location updates; mobile devices will soon be used as the default way to interact with social media. One can see the reason why all major social media players like Facebook, Google+, Twiter and Linkedin have developed native apps for android and iOS.

Mobile Apps are even more dependent on social media interfaces because users have started moving from email , text messaging and voice calls to Facebook, Twitter, WhatsApp and Hangouts. Telecom providers are now feeling the heat as they see their traditional business under threat and they are monetizing Apps by selling valuable marketing insights by selling data captured by free apps enriched by demographic and geo-location context. Marketers can now sharply focus on their target customers using this information.

Synergy between anytime anywhere Cloud  Service And Mobile Apps 

Besides sharing photos and videos on social media ; mobile users also want to store them for sharing them across multiple devices. Storing them on the cloud provides a mechanism to have the private and shared photos, videos and documents accessible from anywhere at anytime using any device- be it smartphone, laptop or tablet. Cloud storage also serves as a backup in case someone loses his smartphone. Cloud application providers are also providing ways of sharing content selectively on social media. Solutions like GoogleDrive, iCloud, DropBox and SugarSync are already allowing people to upload files from their desktops to view them on their mobile phones and tablets.

More VUCA business environment? Embracing Enterprise Mobility is not enough.

The term VUCA – an acronym for Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity was first used in Military in the 90s.  Here’s how Wikipedia defines VUCA.

More recently this has become a reality of business environment. There is a general agreement that business environment is characterized by VUCA a.k.a. Business VUCA.

Its becoming increasingly difficult to plan for long time spans.  Plans and forecasts go wrong catching managers off their guard. Does it mean that we should stop planning for the long term? Isn’t there any value for long term vision?

vj-blog-July-2013

There is value for both long term vision and short term response. Managers need to sync up and update their vision to account for changes in the environment. The frequency of updating forecasts and plans needs to increase to keep up with VUCA. Error in forecasts and plans result in waste in 2 ways –

1)   Resources and materials that go unutilized if actual demand is below forecast

2)   Loss of opportunity, delays and dissatisfaction if demand exceeds forecast.

Organizations need to receive and process information to update their plans more frequently. Anytime anywhere access to managers and decision-makers using mobile phones will help but on the other hand they will be inundated with information and signals from ever changing environment.

We not only need quicker but more distributed decision-making. Organizations need to have decentralized and flatter structures to facilitate faster response to change. Organizations having empowered, agile, cross-functional teams are quicker to respond to change than siloed hierarchies. Decentralized structures seem to be achieving this better than flatter hierarchies.

All this means we need to have more frequent and smaller messages, events , alerts and decisions. But would it be enough if our commitments still remain long term? How can decentralized decision-making help if execution still remains centralized?

Quicker and more frequent decisions can be executed only if we make short term commitments and reduce the size of individual transactions. We should empower decentralized decision-makers to enter into these smaller transactions.

Mobile technology and consumerization of enterprise IT is going to help us reduce the size of transactions that can be handled by decision-makers using technologies like Google Wallet or Square.

Conclusion

Embracing enterprise mobility and handing smartphones to all employees is not going to make your organization responsive to VUCA.  You will need to restructure your organization to be more decentralized, empower individuals to facilitate decentralized decision-making and reduce the size and commitment time-span of transactions.