Off to Agra

I feel guilty – guilty for not being able to update my blog for the last 1 week. But the past week has been really crazy with the deadline of a couple of our projects just round the corner. And I also have a friend from Microsoft in the city who was in India for attending a marriage – and I get to play the role of a tour guide. And I am off to Agra tomorrow early morning at 6 only to come back on Sunday in the afternoon. Haven’t seen Taj Mahal ever – looking forward to it. I, though, have a feeling that I will not like it very much – monuments never excite me that much.

I have so many ideas to blog about – got to do that all in the next week. Thank you for the patience – few of the people who read my blogs religiously have already mentioned this to me over the phone. Let me re-iterate here — I am going to do some good posts next week to make up for not being active this week.

And, of course, we are moving to our new office in the coming week – can’t wait now. :-)

Learnings on User Experience

One blog that I have started to like more and more is “Creating Passionate Users by Kathy Sierra“. She has an excellent post on a user-focused employee guide. It’s quite a long post where she comes up with an unofficial guide to create passionate users for those working in big companies. She had just been to Microsoft and that, apparently, prompted her to write this post.

Something awesome that I saw on quite early at Microsoft, when I used to work there, was their usability lab. They would first define some personas who are the target buyers of their product and then invite few people fitting the description of those personas and will let them use the system after a brief introduction. You could see from the glass-wall the users actually using the system and discovering stuff. It was mind-boggling to see users using the system sometime in a totally different way than you would expect AND also not being able to discover stuff that you would think is so obvious.

My first lessons there: User is God. Seriously! The systems are designed for them and not for those who are designing them. If you are serious about creating a world-class product, you have to think more and more actively from a user’s perspective. And, actually no, don’t just think yourself. Involve some real users to use your system as early as possible. What is intuitive to you may not be intuitive to your users at all. Pay more than usual attention to this stuff. Technology is not something that attracts end-users, it is the value that keeps them glued to your product – and you can increase the value manifold by improving the user experience and making them more usable. And, it’s actually a matter of just developing that habit, to ingrain that in your DNA – and it becomes trivial after that. You will automatically ‘get it’ on all your subsequent products. It just adds one more step to the product development cycle (SDLC for Software) but well worth it.

The bullet-points that I really liked from Kathy’s post (I don’t agree completely with all the points she mentions but agree with the idea overall):

  1. Language matters. Frame everything in terms of the user’s experience
  2. Be annoyingly persistent. If you’re relentless in the previous step–always asking the question, “how does this help the user kick ass?”, it won’t take that long before the people you interact with will anticipate that you’re going to ask it, and that at least forces them to think about it for a moment.
  3. Capture user stories from real users.
  4. When product features are discussed without taking into account how it helps (or hinders) the user kicking ass, adopt a slightly confused, mildly annoyed look…
  5. Challenge user-unfriendly assumptions every day.
  6. Don’t give up. If you do, then quit at the earliest possible moment. But if you’re relentless and you slowly recruit others to your cause, you can change a culture… one small group at a time. If you succeed, even in a small way, and help shift the supertanker just one degree… that one degree eventually means a profoundly different trajectory down the road

If you haven’t still read Kathy’s post, let me remind you again. Do yourself and this world a favor – always think about your users. That is what will differentiate you from the rest. Flickr is, probably, one of the best example of this.

Update: Bloggers dinner went fine

An update to the bloggers dinner post I had here – the meet (I prefer to call it Geek dinner, based on the discussions happening) last night went fine. We spent a whole lot of time socializing and networking over drinks and starters – so it was already late by the time dinner was served. People started coming up at the right time – around 7.30 PM and it was 11 PM when I paid up the bill at the counter.

Couple of take-aways from the dinner meet:

1. We need to have more such meetings in the NCR region – Tekriti has started the wave.
2. We guys really need to join TIE Delhi chapter – this is something I have always wanted to do but, still, have never done that.
3. It’s a bad idea to eat so much stuff during dinner – particulary when you have had heavy lunch already (ok, I learnt it long back but good food always makes me forget it)

Marc posted a few photos of the meet here.

Amit Goyal also posted a photo of Tekriti team just after our lunch at Moti Mahal, Gurgaon.

One stop – single examination for IIT entrance

It is accepted unarguably that IIT JEE (Indian Institute of Technology – Joint Entrance Examination) is one of the toughest examinations in the entire world. The acceptance rate used to be 1 in 100 (2,000 seat for 2,00,000 participants) although, lately, they are working on doubling the seats. Last time I found out, the number of seats had grown to 3000 and they were still working on increasing it. And the quality of questions are so high that one just need to score around 35-40% (or even less) to make it to one of the IITs.

JEE started as just a single exam with subjective and objective questions intermingled in the question paper but they changed it some 6 years back with a screening exam followed by the main exam for those who cleared the former. It, definitely, gave some tough times to the aspirants and was cause of many a cases of depression / discouragement for those not being able to clear the screening test. The following news is a good one as IITs have decided to merge the two in one. An excerpt:

It’s celebration time for IIT aspirants. The hard-to-crack entrance examination, IIT-JEE , just got simpler. Beginning ’06, the two-step entrance — screening and main — examination will be replaced by a single exam. Just so that students take their board exams seriously, a first class in their class twelve board exams will be mandatory to appear for the IIT-JEE. Moreover candidates will be allowed only two attempts at the IIT-JEE.

I like this pattern because of following reasons:

1. Just having 1 exam instead of 2 (screening and main)
2. Minimum marks in the school-leaving exam (class 12th) is 60% now – this will force people to take up their school exams a bit more seriously.
3. Only 2 attempts for the JEE: Excellent step. There is no point in somebody wasting a lot of time for just 1 exam.
4. Somebody who is already in IIT can’t take up the exam again: Again a good step. If you don’t want to join a course / institute and are doing it just for another year of preparation, don’t waste the seat that another person will be more than glad to have.

Reasons that I don’t like this pattern for:

1. Simplifying the syllabus / paper and asking only objective questions: I have always been in favor of the IIT entrance question papers to be tough. Making the question papers / syllabus easy will only test the speed and accuracy (great!) of the person and not the real intellect / analytical skills. The idea of IIT, to begin with, was always to produce more scientists than engineers and steps like this will only weaken the implementation of that idea.

Lastly, they will re-evaluate the entire thing after JEE ’06 – which can only be a good thing. I will be eager to know what others think about this.

Cricket: Balancing power

I followed the current Ashes series between Australia and England with a greater curiousity than I followed the triangular series involving India, New Zealand and Zimbabwe. The reason was the superlative performance by the English team, and especially 2 folks: Andrew Flintoff and KP Pietersen. Result: England regaining the series after almost 16 years. Now, 16 years is a long enough time for a lot of people to give up – but not the current England team. Lately, Australia have been in the habit of winning – a very dangerous habit of winning all the test series in the last few years. India did give them a hard time and also managed to break their winning streak once but, overall, Australia was a far superior team than any other team.

This victory of England over Australia makes me happy. Not because I like the England team more than Australia or vice-versa but because I see yet another team who has the balls to take on Australia in a test series. Happy because this would only mean balancing of cricketing powers and, hopefully, fewer one-sided matches. Happy because, again hopefully, I get to see some less arrogance from a few members of the Australian team. Happy because the other team will, hopefully, not get as intimidated by the Australian team as has become the norm.

Now that I am on the topic of cricket – I can’t stop mentioning how hurt I was when I read an article in today’s newspaper that there is again a doubt on whether the last tri-series involving India, New Zealand and Zimbabwe was fixed or not. I think it’s actually a good sign that I still get hurt when I read news of this kind – I only fear that I will start ignoring all this if this starts becoming more frequent.

BTW, I did receieve a few compliments for the current theme at my blog. To be fair (under pressure :-)), let me pass on the compliments to Madhavi for the photo at the top. This was a photo that was taken by her and edited by me to fit this blog.

Ebay’s announcement: will they really buy Skype? THEY DID!

I have been reading about it for quite some time now. But will Ebay really buy Skype? And that too at close to 4 billion USD? Via Businessweek:

Just got a notice from eBay of an “investor conference call” at 5 a.m. Pacific time, on an announcement to be made two hours earlier. Very unusual practice for eBay. I don’t know for sure, but who wouldn’t guess that eBay’s buying Skype after all? A Financial Times story suggests that’s indeed the case, and mentions that the “agreement could reach $4.1bn if performance targets are reached.” Yikes. Honestly, I still don’t see the logic at anything near that price, but it could be we’ll find out shortly what eBay has up its sleeve.

Now, I see the value of Skype more in terms of the members they have and not on the technology. There are a lot of other players in the VOIP space but who would have imagined a VOIP company being acquired for 4 billion USD or even a discussion about it? I am wondering how is Ebay going to use both the data (Ebay members and Skype members) and come up with something that lets them even recover this cost? Right now – I am just not in a position to think after I read the $4.1 billion figure. How come the acquisition price for Skype keeps going up every other day?

Update: It’s official. Ebay did buy Skype at $4.1 billion. They’re paying $1.3 billion in cash, $1.3 billion in stock and apparently there’s another $1.5 billion on the line in incentive payouts based on various performance metrics over the next three years. News from Skype website:

(Nasdaq: EBAY; http://www.ebay.com) has agreed to acquire Luxembourg-based Skype Technologies SA, the global Internet communications company, for approximately $2.6 billion in up-front cash and eBay stock, plus potential performance-based consideration. The acquisition will strengthen eBay’s global marketplace and payments platform, while opening several new lines of business and creating significant new monetization opportunities for the company. The deal also represents a major opportunity for Skype to advance its leadership in Internet voice communications and offer people worldwide new ways to communicate in a global online era. Skype, eBay and PayPal will create an unparalleled ecommerce and communications engine for buyers and sellers around the world.

I can only say – “Long live Ebay”!

Seattle area buses add Wi-Fi

Excellent! This was my instantaneous reaction when I read this news item. An excerpt:

The King County Metro Transit tries out Wi-Fi on a few routes: Using the locally made Junxion Box, which relays data between a Wi-Fi gateway and a 2.5G or 3G cellular network, Metro Transit will equip all buses along two long routes with Internet access—29 buses in all by mid-October. The service will be free during trials which will last five months and run on a route from south Seattle to north Seattle and another between the university neighborhood and Federal Way, a southern suburb.

I hardly took a bus in Seattle when I used to be there but this news still excited me. This is exactly the kind of news I miss in India. Forget the buses (I don’t think that we even need our buses to be Wi-Fi enabled), we don’t even have the culture of providing Wi-Fi connections in the Cafe / malls. How much I think about just spending an hour every other day at a cafe after dinner – only if they had internet connectivity allowing me to work outside the office and home.

Gurgaon – are the cafe owners listening?

Radio show and Lessons in Interviewing

I mostly listen to the FM radio on my drive to and from the office. I don’t really have a long drive – so I don’t get a lot of time to do that and more so because I also use that time a lot to speak to friends and relatives on the phone. But something that interested me, a couple of days back, was a show that was aired on the radio while I was driving to the office – where this host was giving away free movie tickets to the callers giving “wrong answers” to the questions being asked. Interesting because I was also trying to answer the questions being asked and it didn’t seem that easy to me as it appeared when I first found out the rules. The questions were so trivial that you will automatically come up with the right answer. So, giving a wrong answer would actually take more time than the right ones and that would only limit the number of free tickets that you could have won.

As soon as I started to walk towards the elevator – I was thinking if the same logic can be applied in other things – including interviewing candidates for a job. You see that I am always thinking about different ways to spot the right talent for Tekriti. Let me take an example here.

One of the things that I have started doing recently more and more while interviewing candidates is to first describe to them a scenario / problem that they would have no idea about and then ask follow-up questions. As an interviewer, the thing that I do is to try to get the right answers from the interviewee – and would give them a few choices to begin with, when they are stuck, that would lead them to the final answer. So, something that I focus a lot in the process is to describe why a choice is the ‘right answer’. But something that I haven’t tried is to let the guys try out ‘reaching to the solution using elimination techniques’. So, instead of telling them the right answer and then explain the reason for it – it might be a better idea to lead them to the solution by helping them find the wrong answers first. This logic is something that is highly useful in solving multiple choice questions in a lot of examinations – and I, personally, have used it a lot.

But now, it may be worth a try to use the same approach during the next few interviews – I just need to organize my thoughts a bit more to be able to do a good job at this and be fair to the next person.

Similarities between Life and Road – a perspective

Manish blogs a discussion that he and I had over the similarities between the life and roads – on our return back from the inspection trip to the new office.

Here is an excerpt:

Ashish was at the wheel driving and I was playing navigator. He wasn’t quite sure of the route we had to take to reach the destination, so I was guiding him. At this one instant while we were heading straight I asked Ashish to take a left. As he swerved his steering wheel left he proclaimed, “Life doesn’t seem to be presenting me with a right turn, every turn is a left turn”. “That’s not true Ashish , just before you reach your destination there is a right turn which will take you straight to your destination”, I retorted, picturing the route in my mind and quickly calculating that there was a right turn we had to take to enter our office complex.

“If you get a right turn close to your destination what’s the use, you are already close to your destination, you should get a right turn when you are far away from your destination”, said Ashish, obviously the conversation was moving further away from just the rights and the lefts on the road. Ashish was co-relating the rights and the lefts with life.

If this sounds interesting, go to Manish’s blog to read the entire discussion. A word of caution – you need a bit of concentration – it is easy to get confused with those many lefts and rights!