Idea or Execution?

After taking up Entrepreneurial path, I have come across many interesting experiences on a daily basis. Every day is filled with unknown or unclear activities with more effort is put to make it more and more clear. In due course of time I also got an opportunity to meet a bunch of entrepreneurs, consultants, mentors and ecosystems partners in Indian entrepreneurial ecosystem. Also I also got opportunity to work more closely with a smaller entrepreneurial teams and execute things at ‘ground zero’.

It is a very popular (or hyped) belief that everything starts with Idea. If an individual has a breathtaking idea he can make it happen. Thanks to some of the recent bigger acquisitions, millions and billions are looking smaller and smaller. However when I work more closely with my organizations or meet people who are ‘really’ successful entrepreneurs it gives me totally a contrarian perspective. No matter how good an idea an individual or a team has, it’s all about execution.

The reason is very simple. Strong execution is what helps organization create customer value and business results. Let me take example of our education segment itself. It is very easy for anybody with decent technical knowledge to come up with a training program in a relatively niche area like Linux. Thanks to lower entry barrier it is easy for an individual to come up with learning materials, doing market research and coming up with value proposition of a particular training program. However following are the key questions are not hyped enough but very critical when it comes to business.

  • How quickly can I find a paying customer, who is in real need of my service?
  • How can I ensure that the customer signs a cheque?
  • How do I gauge current skill level of target audience and figure out what exactly they expect?
  • In case I already know I can’t exceed their expectations in the training program how do I manage it at least by meeting their expectations?
  • How do I tune my way of delivery so that audience have maximum take away?
  • How to I collect feedback from them, in case of negative feedback how can I address them?
  • In case of getting positive feedback how can I convert into a repeatable business?

The whole crux of all above mentioned questions directly relates with the way of a particular training program is executed. Apart from above mentioned questions there might be another bunch of questions, issues, challenges we face every day at ground zero level when we actually deliver something to our customers. When we go through this grind every day it has become quite obvious that execution is super important than idea. With technology advancements, mentor ecosystem and internet it is very easy for anybody to come up with relatively new idea. However ensuring that a particular product or service is really accepted from the customer end and generates value requires a strong execution backed up by the idea. I am not under estimating or downplaying the importance of having an important idea, building a strategy or having marketing/GTM activity, eventually execution is what makes all the difference.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

Electronics Rocks 2013

Electronics Rocks 2013
Electronics Rocks 2013

Last weekend, Electronics for You (EFY) folks organized a very interesting electronics related conference (called as Electronics Rocks) at NIMHANS convention Center Bangalore. I got a chance to attend the conference after a long time. The primary objective was to attend the hands-on workshop organized by Kits and Spares folks on their Mango Pi development board as I wanted to get more insights into these embedded learning kits, which was coming as a free item along with the workshop. Though workshop was a major flop show (details below), there were many interesting takeaways.

As mentioned in my previous post on Embedded learning kits, I spent quite some time surveying development boards that can be used for educational/learning purpose.  I started off by looking into the latest Beaglebone black board (by Texas Instruments) with ARM 335x Cortex-A8 processor, which doesn’t come with TI DSP for media processing. Upon conversation I understood, there are applications available, which can do decent graphics processing. However for higher end graphics related stuff, Pandaboard still works better as it comes with multiple media interfaces. Definitely there is also a 4 times price difference between these two (Beagle comes at USD 45 v/s Pandaboard at 174 USD). On business side, I could observe all these boards are sold by multiple re-sellers, who were having different stalls in the conference. Considering the price point and target audience, it perfectly makes sense to take re-seller option.

On the electronics components side, I could see many vendors who were showcasing their list consisting of various parts. Had some conversation with folks from RS components, who are into component selling from almost all the major semiconductor manufactures.  They also seem to have a hub of interesting embedded projects in platform called Designspark, where design engineers can can exchange their ideas and create projects. Along with components, there were also many vendors demonstrating debuggers, tools and embedded design services capability. The debugging space is definitely interesting, but I was not paying much attention as it makes sense only for devices with at least a JTAG interface, which was not my area of focus. From governance side, erstwhile Indian Semiconductor Association (ISA) has changed their name into Indian Electronics and Semiconductor Association (IESA) with responsibility of promoting electronics ecosystem in India.

Coming to Mango Pi workshop, it turned out to be a major flop. During initial promotion they mentioned this workshop as “Build a wireless robot in 60 minutes” using Mango Pi board and mentioned participants can take away a board at the end of the workshop. I was excited about it and registered for the session by paying extra 1500 INR, specifically for this workshop. It was a total chaos where they messed up everything starting with schedule. I was supposed to attend 11:30 AM slot, but they asked me to to attend the 12:30 PM slot due to increased number of participants . I waited for almost an hour, where there was a big queue and people were flocking into a small room. The workshop co-ordinators were relatively junior guys, who couldn’t manage this chaos, eventually mentioned they will do the next session in a bigger room located upstairs.

The upstairs location was an open one, where the sound system was not at all conducive for a workshop environment. On top of that, workshop speaker was of very low quality, neither he was good in communication nor he had much idea about technical aspects. He went on demonstrating building robots with totally a different kit (where Mango Pi board only plays a part), where there were other components like Arduino board, RF sender and receiver etc. I got totally irritated with this poor organization  ended up leaving the workshop within 15 minutes. When they organize an event of this scale, proper attention to be paid as it creates a strong impression on the whole product that is getting demonstrated. Executing it in such a ad-hoc manner has resulted in nothing short of a disaster.

Apart from the items mentioned above, there were a series of talks happening on multiple themes which I couldn’t attend due to personal time constraint. Probably I should plan and attend those sessions next time. Overall it was a decent conference, which provided me deeper insights into many aspects of embedded systems, educational kits, open source, Linux and related technologies.

Embedded self learning kits

Embedded systems is been my area of interest, ever since I attended computer networks course during my engineering days. In those days mainly networking devices were meant to be primary source of embedded systems as custom designed hardware and software would make networking (packet switching, routing, configuration & management etc…) faster. As a student Linux (or UNIX) was the primary source, where testing of target embedded image to be done in the same PC. In such cases getting the real kick of ‘embedded’ software was absent. Developing the embedded software in a host PC, using cross compiler/linker to generate target image, deploying it in target hardware (typically a board, which is supposed to perform certain functionality) was something an individual can only get in professional work environment to make the ’embedded’ learning complete.

Over a period of time I see the landscape changing significantly with multiple low cost self learning kits/devices flocking the market. Starting off with Texas Instrument’s Panda board, learning kits ecosystem started moving into a different level altogether.  Entry of Raspberry Pi  at $25 price-point about an year back, brought in further changes. Once these hardware folks release the initial hardware is out in the market, tons of open source enthusiasts backed by community are creating necessary software (ex: SDK) and projects by complementing it. This has opened up a new gamut of self learning opportunity, where individuals can learn latest embedded system concepts, programming and complete interesting project right from their homes or hostel rooms. As long as one has a booting Linux machine, it is enough to get started on these embedded learning kits.

Off-late there are multiple domestic providers in this field as well. The Kits and Spares online shop provides a whole bunch of such devices with which an individual can create small and useful projects. There are also specific training service providers like Thinklabs, who not only provide kits but also train in interesting projects like Robotics that can be built around the device. It’s been real fun to see combination of low cost democratic hardware with open source software, which is making Embedded systems learning very easy.

Shortly I am looking forward to lay my hands in one of these devices. Will share more details after that.

Data structure assignments and torture

Data structure & algorithms form backbone of programming. It is expected that any computer science graduate to have very good experience in using various data structures like linked lists, queues, stacks, trees, hash tables etc. During my REC Warangal days, passing thru the Data structure course was a real torture. The professor will ensure we slog thru our bones by having a very strict evaluation mechanism to evaluate every other assignment. Let me explain this in detail.

To start with, every week a new assignment topic will be given. We will create a basic design and start coding them, while theoretical part was still thought in the classroom. By the end of the week (Sunday 5 PM) we were supposed to copy the corresponding C file into a particular directory with a particular format. If it is done even at 5:01, it will not be allowed as an automated script would block write access to directory. Followed by this, every C program will be turn thru a Shell script, which will find 20% of total lines randomly and delete from the program by placing some special character (ex: /* $ */) as a placeholder. There is also a mandate that all assignments should not have any comments, thereby preventing students escaping by filling up comment lines instead of actual C program statements.

The story is not over yet! During lab session (in the next week), one hour of time will be provided where each one of us needs to fill-up deleted 20% lines followed by successful compilation and execution of the program. Here also timings are very strict. Just after one hour a script will automatically logout each of us from the computer. In the final phase of evaluation each of us should show the truncated program (from previous phase, whatever state it may be) and explain/answer some difficult questions related to data structure, asked by the professor. At any point of time the professor gets doubt (of copying assignment) whole assignment score will be nullified.

At the age of 18, it was too much of a pressure to handle. Completing program on time, copying to specified directory before Sunday 5 PM, Missing a meal/dinner, Skipping sleep, trying to fill-up missing lines within a hour and answering questions was a too long a process. In order to make it effective, the professor distributed marks across all these phases, thereby one cannot escape so easily without working hard. At the end of evaluation, I used to get a huge sigh of relief and sleep like a baby for hours together. Each one of us used to curse the professor for torturing us so much!

Today when I look back, I get a totally different perspective. If not for that strong evaluation mechanism, each one of us could have become lazy and never learned the art of programming. We could have mugged up some programs and passed exams. In my another post about going technical hands-on, I mentioned about debugging some of my old Kernel programs within a week, even though I was out of touch from programming for years together now. Definitely, the DNA which got injected in form of data structure programming is still there in my blood, which is helping me to pick-up programming with ease.

I also tried out a Shell script (of deleting 20% random lines from a C program), will upload it soon.

Aakash (Ubislate 7Ci) review


Aakash - Ubislate 7Ci - Review

I purchased Aakash few months back, thought of writing review on multiple aspects. To give a background, Aakash is an ultra low-cost tablet innovated and manufactured by DataWind. This organization also partnered with Government of India for distributing Aakash with subsidized option for school students, which is expected to transform education. My main requirement was to have an ultra-low cost tablet for my four year old daughter, mainly for viewing videos from YouTube. I was not bothered about anything else, so the requirement was very simple and straightforward.

Purchase experience

Pros – Made an online purchase from Datawind’s website (http://www.ubislate.com/) by placing order for Ubislate 7Bi model which comes with resistive touch screen with 3000 INR. Since they operate with razor thin margin, there is no credit card option. Only debit cards are accepted for free shipping. If you are paying by cash (on delivery), additional purchase charge is added. Overall purchase flow was smooth similar to popular ecommerce websites.

Cons – Please don’t go by the service level guarantee they claim in website (ex: 48 hour shipping). I got a call-back after about two weeks of placing the order regarding confirmation. The call center executive by default started talking in Punjabi + Hindi mixture as they are based out of Amristar. Surprisingly executive mentioned Ubislate 7Bi is out of production, but they will ship me an upgraded version (Ubislate 7Ci with capacitive touch screen) with no additional cost. I happily opted for it; shipment reached me a week later. Totally it took three weeks of shipment time. Some of my friends also mentioned about delayed shipments. So if you are looking for faster shipping with immediate use in mind think twice before opting for Ubislate.

User experience:

Overall build quality and packaging looks good, especially considering ultra low-cost option.     Ubislate 7Ci comes with 7″ touch screen, Wi-Fi interface, 512 MB RAM with Android ICS (v4.0.3), which matches my requirement of YouTube viewing using home wireless Internet.  Typical device sign-up is done with Google ID worked seamlessly. I was able to immediately install many applications from Google Store, without any major problem. The out-of the-box experience was really good.

However after using the device for some time, I observed applications took long time to load, even basic browsing became a pain. On a frequent basis, I need to use their “killapp” option to clean up unwanted processes to free up some memory. By default all applications gets installed into device internal memory, by moving some of them into external SD card (comes with 2 GB storage) made my device reasonably faster.  Battery backup also very poor, device hardly works for 2-3 hours at a stretch. Many occasions I found booting screen doesn’t show up after charging the device and I ended up doing “plug-and-pray”. This also makes me wonder if the device would ultimately stop functioning some day or the other!

Transforming education?

Aakash was projected as the tablet for transforming education in India by using ultra low-cost plus internet connection as a “one-stop” solution. I have serious concerns on how it can really help school students. Given the not-so-favorable user experience (mainly power backup & speed) adding, slower internet connection (especially in rural areas) would make the experience even worse. By the time I write this post, there are enough and more articles in the web about how this device is already failing big time in mass market adoption. Even though there is a definite market opportunity, once again bad execution failed to capitalize the opportunity. It will be another version of Simputer story.

Bottom line – Don’t buy this device, I am repenting for buying it. My daughter is not using it at all, continue to use home computer or smart phones for watching YouTube!

82.5% of indian technical graduates are not ready to be employed, but who’s listening???

I came across a recent report which claimed that only about 17% of Indian technical graduates are ready to be employed.

From my experience it is usually about 6 to 12 months before a fresh Engg graduate gives more to the team than he or she takes. Most of what is taught in Engineering degree is pretty much useless or irrelevant. In fact if I have to go back to my 4 year Engg syllabus and re-look what part of what I learnt (or was supposed to learn) has been useful in my 20 year career, it would be a very low percentage.

Now coming back to the survey, based on the track record, the response from the industry would be on the following lines:

Decry the deplorable levels of tech education and write long petitions to the Education Ministry to improve the quality and relevance of our tech degrees and how this is impacting the industry. After all this, continue their existing hiring policy of campus recruitment and have a graded starting salary based on the ranking of the college.

Im fairly confident that none of the big hirers from our IT services sector is going to change their hiring policy in any manner. They will continue to hire Engineers every Engineering college that they can lay their hands on, put them through a long training process before the candidate is ready to contribute anything meaningful.

If 82% of them are unfit and you anyway have to put them through a few quarters of training, why bother with the degree in the first place? Why not just take in students who have just completed their high school, put them through a 1 or 1 1/2 year training instead of hiring fresh Engineers and training them for 6 months before they are ready?

While this does sounds extreme, this is exactly what a Chennai based technology product development company has been doing for the past 4 years now. I understand about 15% of their 1300 work force is actually from their own University and they expect to raise it to 30% over the next few years based on the current strength in their University and their hiring plans. I believe their 18 month course has been designed keeping in mind the needs of and expectations from a “Software Engineering Trainee” in their company. Roughly 95% of the students from this University have been absorbed into their company and the “graduates” from their University are actually more “job-ready” than fresh graduates who have spent 4 years in an Engineering college.

Of course there are other dimensions to this company’s initiative – they hire disadvantaged high school pass outs who would otherwise not be able to afford our super expensive (but inefficient) education system and are willing to take this “chance”. The students are paid a nominal stipend and are free to “drop out” anytime from their University – during or after the course.

Its high time that our IT industry looks at such innovating means of fulfilling their resource needs than relying on a system that delivers 82% unfits and believing that the government / education system “owes” them better trained people. Nobody owes anybody anything.

This would also put an end to people believing that they can start an Engineering college if they just have 50 acres of land in the middle of no where and turn out unfits who would be hired anyway.

NWritings

Reading in mother tongue

After getting into Engineering English language took the center stage as the medium of instruction. Except for oral communication with friends and family, the opportunity to use mother tongue (Tamil in my case) had come to a logical end. The professional life thought me the importance of English all the more as it was the only common language used to communicate with folks around the globe. However internally I was missing something, which probably I can’t explain in words. After eating, breathing and learning in my mother tongue for initial 17 years of my life, it was not easy.

For the past 4 years, things started changing thanks some great happenings in Tamil digital and print media. I started reading few interesting Tamil blogs referred by some like minded people. Contrary to the popular belief, non-English contents (especially Tamil) is growing at an alarming phase in the Internet (put stats).  It is a great pleasure to re-connect with Tamil content after a decade. Thanks to innovations happening in Tamil publishing industry, I am now reading translated version of bestsellers in English. Both content and language is of my choice, which has taken my reading habit into a new dimension.

After developing serious reading habit for the past 8 years, I have come to an opinion that nothing can substitute the pleasure of thinking, reading & understanding things in your own mother tongue. While English has definitely taken center stage for making a career, learning in mother tongue is amazing. This probably also explains why many of the Asian countries (especially Japan) is so successful by giving preference to Japanese language.

Emotional Intelligence – How smart you are?

I am totally convinced!

After dealing with tons of people both in professional and personal space, I have come to an understanding that Intelligent Quotient (IQ) matters only in certain areas. For example — getting your photo published in local newspaper for topping the school, get admission into good college, land in a high paying job by attending campus interview. But the real fun begins after that, where an individual starts working with people in some form or other. Here having proper Emotional Quotient (EQ) plays more important role, which eventually determines professional/personal happiness and success.

Having high EQ is the key for handling situations in a better way, which eventually makes all the difference. Recently started working on the ‘Emotional Intelligence’ with some like-minded folks, following presentation has the first cut of information about this topic.


BOOK REVIEW: Don’t sprint the Marathon

 

Price: 199 INR

Author: V. Raghunathan

Taking real life situations, mapping into a model and deriving some interesting observations is something comes natural to author Raghunathan. In his first book ‘Games Indians play’, he gave a very good perspective by mapping behavior of Indians to Game theory. In his second book he tried a similar approach by taking a different approach into our educational system and how parents are reacting by putting unnecessary pressure into children. Being a parent of two year old, I am able to very well connect with the points mentioned in this book.

The author starts deriving basics for his argument by comparing Sprint Vs Marathon running. In the world of athletics, they follow two entirely different approaches for preparing aspiring runners. The former is all about strength, energy, rush of speed, visible progress with main focus towards the end, whereas later is all about stamina, mental toughness, persistence and competing with self. Life, if at all can be compared, can be done only with marathon running. Also, assuming the fact that every individual has a career span of 30 years, it makes all the more sense for comparing it with marathon, than sprint.

Cut to education! As middle class parents with lot of ambitions and aspirations, most of us tend to put pressure on kids for making them as ‘someone’ in life. In this mad rush for the so called success or rat-race, middle class parents prepare their kids well as sprint runners, who may not achieve excellence in the marathon called life. By not allowing children to grow at their own pace by understanding their strengths, will eventually set the children for failure when life throws different set of challenges at them. The commonly perceived notion of ‘success’ will not mean anything in the long run.

In order to substantiate his viewpoint, author refers to so many real life examples where multiple individuals (ex: MD & CEO of GMR infrastructure) who were not so great during their school time but eventually achieved excellence by taking a long term view of life and focusing on their real interest and passion. While he is not disagreeing to the fact that doing well during school and getting admission into top college does mean getting a good ‘start’ do the life. However it will not guarantee a great ‘finish’ which is what life is all about. He also states that there is enough number of opportunities in all fields for people having the right set of skills and attitude.

In practical, I could connect very well with that he has mentioned in this book. Providing costly education has become a fad these days where nobody bothers about the quality or what exactly the kid gets out of it. Children have become man made instruments, thro’ which parents can achieve their own dreams which they couldn’t due to many constraints they faced during their childhood. Because of this approach, most of the people end up choosing careers that is not suiting their own strength and passion, which is resulting failure in life. This is also one of the main reasons whey ‘excellence’ it not achieved in many of the fields.

Overall I found this book is very relevant in the current context of India. In some ways it is sending messages in the similar lines of ‘Taare Zameen par’ and ‘Three idiots’. I would strongly recommend this book for professionals, parents and to some extent teenage children to put things into perspective.

Education: State Vs Central board

Its time to talk about education!

I grew up in a small town, educated in state board , in regional medium (Tamil) of instruction. Apart from my studies, all I knew was about something called ‘English medium’, where subjects were taught in English and those students boasted as if they knew many things. Acronums like JEE, AIEEE, CBSE, ICSE were totally unheard until I went to do my Engineering. These days I am discussing schooling related topics with my friends and family, so that I can make a better choice for my little one. However I am not sure if there is anything called ‘better’ choice? Will it make any difference at all?

Based on my discussion folks fed me with following data – In (Karnataka) state board is relatively easy to score marks (in terms of percentage), thereby having a better chance of making into good state colleges. However it is completely rote based, will not provide room to grow analytical/application thinking. In case of central (ICSE/CBSE) boards, it is totally opposite – getting marks is difficult, but it is comparitively make analytical thinking better. Also by taking up central sylabbus one has a better chance of cracking national level competitive examinations like JEE. But there is also a risk, where getting lower marks in central board, means ending up in mid/lower tier colleges in the state.

Leaving the boards & marks apart, I am having more fundamental questions about our education system. I know these questions are not easy to answer, but let me line them up as follows:

  1. Why there are so many boards, with different standards and evaluation procedures? Shouldn’t we have a common sylabbus across the country, where things are done in a uniformed manner? Even today there are not many ICSE/CBSE schools in smaller towns, thereby not providing them to have a fair chance in national level entrance examinations.
  2. Recently Tamilnadu government attempted to do this unification by removing state and matriculation sylabbus by coming up with a uniform school system. However thanks to the recent government change (from DMK to ADMK), it has taken a nasty route, where even today they are not sure which sylabbus to follow. Its been two weeks since schools  re-opened in the state, still my nephew (in 9th standard) didn’t get his text books, reason being schools don’t know which one to follow. Why should we allow education becoming a toy in hands of politicians? Shouldn’t it be governed by an independent body like election commission?
  3. Where and how are we taking care of the passion part? Thanks to the current situation, we seem to be pushing anyone and everyone into Engineering, so that they can get a high paying software job. This resulting in people who are not so passionate about the technolgy entering the industry, which will create a long term problem both for individual and industry as a whole. Why are we are not giving enough importance to arts, science and commerce? Why there is a common thinking of measuring success only in terms of salary he/she gets?
  4. While we are very happy to see movies like ‘Taare Zameen par’ and ‘Three idiots’, how many parents today are even making an attempt to understanding their kids and helping them choose their career/education, depending on his/her interest?

I am more than happy to hear your views/thoughts on this topic.