Electronics Rocks – 2014

erocks_logoBeen thinking of writing about Electronics Rocks 2014 (eRocks), finally able to pen-down few things. For people who don’t know what eRocks, here is a brief – it is one of the most popular electronics conference organized by EFY media. Last year I attended as a participant found some interesting things in the conference. This year, after joining Emertxe we got opportunity to be a community partner of the event and offer a presentation on the Internet-Of-Things (IoT) design challenges. The event happened during October 10th and 11th at NIMHANS convention center, Bangalore that attracted 3000+ participants for the event. For my session about IoT which was the key focus for the conference attracted 200+ participants. Post presentation we have received very positive feedback from the community.

While there are many things about the conference, here are my top-3 learnings from the conference:

  • Not only Open software: The field of electronics has become more interesting in the recent years mainly because of open source software and easily available/affordable hardware. While devices like Raspberry-Pi, Arduino has already become very popular, I found some of the new devices like UDOO which are becoming very powerful around which many cool things can be built. Going forward I see many companies flocking into this space which is yet to be tapped to its full potential.
  • Product design: While the previous point gives opportunity to build around so many ideas, there seems to be very large gap when it comes to product design knowledge. While student level knowledge is enough to build a prototype (ex: Agriculture automation) making it as a complete product required a different set of knowledge. During my discussions with many enthusiasts I found there is a severe lack of knowledge about Productization using real hardware.
  • IoT is not new: While there is a lot of opportunity around the IoT space, in my opinion it is not something very new. Connecting devices to network (say LAN) is been existing for a long time, which has taken a upgraded as IoT thanks to multiple advancements happening in embedded & web application development. During my talk also I mainly stressed about this aspect, where fundamentals needs to be taken care to build products in the IoT space.

Here is the Slideshare link to my presentation, comments are welcome. Couldn’t spend much time across various tracks due to my time constraints hopefully next year I will be able to do better by listening into multiple tracks (ex: Jugaad innovation).


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.

Product Innovation – A a non-linear item

Doing product innovation is a tricky affair, irrespective of organizations. Especially for product R & D organizations working on ‘end-of-the-life-cycle’ items, this becomes even more challenging.  Having associated with many innovation practices, councils and approaches I have had my own share of successes and failures. Want to share some experience in form of this post.

To start with innovation is a non-linear process, where predicting output is not very obvious. It is way different from linear activities as a part of software development life cycle, where activities and outputs are very well defined. Even though there are some changes expected from the customer (during development), it can be managed as long as risk management and stakeholder buy-in is place to a larger extent. On the other hand, nobody can predict who, when and how a new innovative idea can emerge. It doesn’t matter about the experience, background or designation; innovation cannot be planned but can only be nurtured by inspirational approach.

In my experience I have seen innovation as both top down and bottom up activity. In top-down typically it is driven by the senior leadership as a special initiative, task-force or specific activities by having a well defined approach. In such cases, many leadership teams take the decision of making it as a ‘project team’ approach where individual leaders and team members are ‘appointed’ and they are asked to take a deterministic approach towards new idea creation. In case of results from innovation becoming critical from innovation, it becomes as a ‘force’ from the top where people are asked to innovate by applying of pressure. In such cases I have hardly seen innovation happening.

On the other hand, when innovation is taken as a bottom-up approach I have seen it working pretty well. For example, I used to work on a consumer device which was initially considered as a standalone entity. Before even cloud or internet-of-things existed, some of us had the conviction that this consumer device should connect with some kind of server (because terminology of cloud was totally unaware of) which can push interesting contents into the device for consumption. As firmware engineers we built initial working prototype which demonstrated the so called ‘cloud-to-device’ functionality by fetching information from the remote server. Then we also got an opportunity to showcase in internal conference and well recognized by senior management.

However the real-fun began when we started interacting with product management folks to take it as a feature in the mainline product. The product marketing folks came back saying they had similar idea in the past, which received lukewarm response from their initial customer survey, hence they may not be interested in taking it as a formal requirement in the product. It was not a easy thing to digest as we have put our heart-on-soul to make the idea fly, but eventually came in terms with reality. Of course, when the cloud computing became a differentiation in business, it was implemented as a big ticket project. It was interesting to be part of idea generation, developing prototype, showcasing in internal conferences and making sincere selling attempts to internal stakeholders, even though it was not accepted as a ‘formal’ item for implementation.

What are the lessons learnt from this whole exercise:

  • Innovation works well when it is driven bottom-up with lots of passion behind it
  • Having a great idea and making a prototype definitely helps to generate initial buy-in as working prototype builds a lot of credibility
  • All ideas might not have buy in from product marketing folks as they have an altogether a different point of view about product and their features. On the other hand one cannot take the route of understanding the business needs first, which might actually block the creative process
  • Innovation is a non-linear activity where there is no success or failure. The biggest reward as an engineer is all about hitting upon an idea and evangelizing it among the organization and give a best shot to make it as a success. One in hundred might receive the success and visibility but it is worth giving it a shot.

Aapkapainter – Home painting at ease

Aapkapainter.com
Aapkapainter.com

It’s been quite some time since I got my house painted. As our little one was growing up, she ensured home walls were her initial canvas using pencil and wax crayons! During vendor short-listing, I came across Aapkapainter (incidentally it is a start-up done by some of my RECW/NITW juniors), eventually signed up with them to get my house painting done. It’s been an awesome experience working with them, right from shortlisting to painting work completion. Wanted to write few details about the work done by them.

Competitive pricing

Initially I had no idea about how to get the painting done. Upon some search, I came to know popular brands (Asian Paints, Nerolac etc…) are offering home painting service on a contract basis and took initial quote from them along with Aapkapainter. To my surprise prices quoted by Aapkapainter was very competitive compared to popular brands, even though they assured me that they will use standard paints for the work. Please also note the fact that standard brands redirect their work to local contractors/vendors, we are also not sure how well they do the job. Finding competitive pricing and placing initial trust (as you know they are my college juniors) I signed up with them for my house painting work.

Professional approach

Right from initial phase, Aapkapainter folks have been very professional in their approach. Understanding painting requirements in detail, providing quotes, suggesting which paint to use for what type of wall, recommending some cost optimization approaches etc, were something I didn’t expect from them. It was a very professional approach in area like home painting, I could clearly differentiate this approach from other vendors with whom I had some initial observations.

Quality in execution

After starting the work, painters showed up properly every day on time, without any major hassles or follow-up. Since we are also living in the same place, they ensured a step-by-step approach by starting the work from one room. Before starting the work they ensured house hold valuables (TV, sofa, fan, wooden/glass cupboards etc…) are well cove

Texture wall
Texture wall

red. None of my family members need to put any effort to move any single item as the painters themselves taken care of it completely. Every day before winding up the day’s work painters ensured cleaning is done in order to ensure living conditions are maintained. The same thing they demonstrated after completing painting work at a particular room by moving back things and setting up in the way they have taken the work before. During the painting they ensured work surface preparation, main-painting and minor corrections were done to the minutest level possible. Check out some main texture work done at my home wall to have a look at their quality of work.

Concerns on safety

As I spend most of the day time at workplace, I was having some initial concerns on my family safety as painters would be working throughout the day in my absence. Aapkapainter folks ensured they sent qualified and proper painters with regular supervision. This ensured here is no safety concern.

What they can do better

This article would remain incomplete if I fail to mention on areas that they can do better. Primarily Aapkapainter has taken an approach to connect consumers to paint services in a vendor independent manner, where their website plays a major role. In that context, their website user-experience can improve. I understand they started off recently, can think of making it much more interactive (ex: Some links are broken in the website). Also some interesting tools (ex: Color comparison, Paint calculator) can be introduced using which users can get a better online experience.

Definitely an area like Home-painting is an unorganized segment. Even though big brands are trying to get it organized, eventually it is up to the local vendor to execute it, where there are definite challenges that need to be met. This also presents a huge opening, which Aapkapainter is trying to address.In summary I got my house re-painting work done in a cost-effective manner with very high quality with zero hassles. I would highly recommend Aapkapainter folks for people who want to get their house-painting work done.

Ten types of Innovation – Concluding notes

With article on Bigbasket, the ten part innovation series comes to an end. When I understood the innovation types (created by Doblin) way back in 2011, my idea was to apply it from Indian context and make case studies fitting various types. It took two long years for me to complete this series with decent satisfaction.

Innovation has gone beyond building a particular product or service. By building something different doesn’t guarantee a business success, whereas ensuring customer derives value will. India, unlike some of the developed countries, is in the cusp of transformation where we have both traditional old school thinking and new school of thinking co-existing with each other. This made my inquiry to innovation all the more interesting. As and when I observed some innovative way to serve customers, I started mapping them back to Doblin’s model and came up with this whole series spanning across industries.

Please find URLs to individual posts as follows:

BOOK REVIEW: My journey – Transforming dreams into action

Abdul Kalam
Transforming dreams into actions

Author: APJ Abdul Kalam

Price: 195 INR

For most Indians, reading about Abdul Kalam and his work is always an inspiring item. Post retirement, he started off his journey into writing by scripting his auto-biography titled ‘The wings of fire’, followed by some popular books like Ignited Minds, Envisioning an empowered nation, Turning points etc. Most of them talk about his early life in Rameshwaram followed by his experience with various defense and space research organizations. Another popular theme in these book is about “Vision 2020”, where Kalam is been articulating India becoming super power by 2012 by achieving excellence in technology, rural transformation, self reliance and self sustainability.

In this latest book ‘My journey – Transforming dreams into Action’, Kalam has followed pretty much the same canvas but gone into very small and specific stories. Unlike his previous books, he has chosen real life anecdotes and shared deeper learning from them. Growing up in town like Rameshwaram with very high aspirations and dreams is not very easy situation to handle. With lesser resources and exposure, Kalam need to go thru lot of struggle and build his career brick-by-brick. The most inspiring part is about him overcoming umpteen numbers of challenges and overcoming them with very strong vision and value.

For example, he explains how he became a working person at the age of 8 by supplying newspapers in Rameshwaram and struggle associated with it. Every day he would to get up at 4 AM followed by his morning tuition and prayers. In order to support his family Kalam takes a part time job of distributing newspapers to Rameshwaram household. Thanks to some policy change, Chennai-Dhanushkodi passenger train which carried daily newspaper bundle from Chennai removed Rameshwaram station from the list. This resulted in Kalam doing every day stunt by catching paper bundle thrown from a moving train at Rameshwaram station. Kalam will then go on distributing them after which his school day would start. In the evening he would finish his homework and complete settlement of newspaper daily account with his cousin who gave him this opportunity. It was quite obvious to see the amount of stress and pressure he might have gone thru as a 8 year old boy, but the way he put it across along with key learnings is simply amazing.

There are multiple similar stories related to his profession filled with struggle and failures.  Inspired by the vision of Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, Kalam and his team went on building Indian space story from the scratch.  He recalls how his professional career is similar to his early life in Rameshwaram – Lesser resources, Limited knowledge, larger challenges and a passion to win. Taking references from Bhagavat Gita to Thirukkural, Kalam mentions how he taken inspiration from these great ancient text to lift him up when things went wrong due to mistakes.  There were some repeated stories (ex: Church in Thumba becoming ISRO office, thanks to the local people), however they are always inspiring ones to hear again and again.

Unlike his previous books, Kalam kept this one very simple which can even read and understood by a high school kid. Definitely worth reading!

Innovation – Type 10 – Customer experience innovation [Case: Bigbasket]

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

The tenth and final type of innovation is around customer experience, which is all about creating a superior experience to customer’s entry to exit. In India many players attempted to do online grocery store for quite some-time now. It is extremely challenging business in Indian context (logistics, poor roads, unpredictable traffic, varying climate conditions etc…), which Bigbasket is able break by creating very good customer experience around it. I have personally tried and tested this many times, it works all the time with great experience.

Simple and effective User interface

The first thing that impressed me about Bigbasket is their simple and effective user interface. It was very easy to search/navigate for individual grocery items and create an order in a hassle free manner. Every item contains optimal information (neither too less nor too much) with put me into ease. Also when individuals go back for re-ordering, it keeps previous list handy for modification, which saves time for second time. This works very well for monthly grocery ordering.

Prompt alerts

While building an easy to use user interface might look relatively easy, integrating with backend supply chain to meet the promise is super critical. Especially in India, where the probability of providing prompt service is less (due to inherent challenges like infrastructure) providing prompt alerts to customers about the order status creates a lot of trust. In case of Bigbasket I get regular alerts (both in form of email and SMS) about my order status. Just before the final delivery of goods, authentication PIN is provided via SMS, so that both delivery person and customer can be assured about delivery.

Service delivery guarantee

Bigbasket
Bigbasket

After placing order, customers get to choose the time-slot in which they wanted the goods to be delivered. This super critical item (similar to Flipkart’s cash on delivery service) which helps office goers to get goods delivered at a convenient time. Their interface also shows the current booking status and slot availability in order to help customers choose the proper delivery time. From execution point of view, I have always seen they deliver goods on the time promised.

Return policy and wallet

During delivery, in case of item mismatch (ex: quantity) or damage (ex: broken seal), Bigbasket delivery folks take it back without any questions. Upon entering these items in backend (using Mobile application) customers again get immediate notification about when the updated item will be delivered. In case of item return, the money is kept back in a digital wallet which can be adjusted for next purchase.

In summary right from order placing to goods return, Bigbasket has done massive integration and prompt execution of their service. This gives a great end-to-end experience for customers in terms of quality, on-time delivery and reliability.

Innovation – Type 9 – Brand [Case: Decathlon India]

Decathlon
Decathlon

It’s time to catch-up with ten part innovation series. The Ninth type of innovation on Brand is about how offerings are expressed to customer to their benefit. It’s been quite a bit of challenge to identify a right case for this innovation, finally nailed it with Decathlon sports India. Decathlon entered India as a sports goods retailer, primarily catering to high end customers by having closed membership association. This was partly due to their positioning and partly due to retail industry regulations in India. Over a period of time they changed the way their brand is expressed to customers, which has made Decathlon as a popular brand today.

To start with, Decathlon instrumented making their employees as brand ambassadors by hiring sports enthusiasts for specific departments. Say if you are passionate cyclist, then you will be hired and made as cycle department sales person or supervisor. Naturally this makes a huge difference to a customer who walks into the shop to buy a bicycle. Given the pre-existing expertise and passion, naturally the sales person will understand customer needs better and ensure they are suggested with proper options in comparison with the person who don’t know anything about cycles. Added to that these employees are positioned well in their marketing communications, hoardings and future job hire needs.

The store and employee appearance also establishes a unique brand image among customers. Unlike other stores, Decathlon’s real estate size is relatively large in order for customers to try out various sports goods (ex: cycles). However they ensured their internal store arrangement (ex: racks) is very simple with lesser investments in order to optimize cost. One gets ‘no-nonsense-I-get-what-I-want’ feeling by entering any of their stores. Their employee appearance (ex: French beard with trendy hair-style) is also something different that I have observed in comparison with other places.

When Decathlon entered India, it was not open to all retail customers. One needs to get membership in order to shop from them, which got repositioned now. It is not open for all retail customers. By targeting upper-middle customer segment, they are able to establish Decathlon as a synonym for quality with decent pricing. This repositioning and communicating right message also changed the way Decathlon is perceived among common people.

In summary Decathlon changed the sports expression by innovating around their brand – in terms of store design, employee appearance, profile of employees and positioning. Globally they have been existing for more than three decades, but by adapting to some of the local challenges, they are well positioned their brand in sports goods retailing.

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.

Technically, hands-on

Often ‘Technically, hands-on’ becomes a critical skill to have no matter the type of role/responsibility an individual is handling in an organization. Bitten by the same bug I thought of making my hands ‘dirty’ by working on some of the older Linux programs I have created. Long time back Yahoo used to offer their Geocities services, where individuals can create their personal websites. There were no automated wizard those days, where I ended up creating HTML pages on my own and uploaded into particular location (provide by Yahoo) by keeping all my older projects in ‘cloud’. Eventually Geocities services was discontinued by Yahoo, luckily a replica maintained by *.ws domain. I was able to retrieve all my old projects and corresponding data from this updated domain. Here is the URL, where I learned my first baby steps about personal website development and writing: http://geocities.ws/b_jayakumar2002

Cut to Linux! I have downloaded two of my older projects which perform the following functionality:

Both programs were written in older version of Kernel (2.4.2) whereas current mainline is running with 3.11. In the mean time the Glibc (GNU C library) also gone thru significant changes, some of the older routines and data types may not work as expected. Since I have been out of programming for years together, I had some initial difficulty to get these programs working. However I was taken by surprise the way open source help system has evolved over years. Let me state my key observations as follows:

  • Thanks to Virtualization, I was able to get a development machine up and running in a matter of 30 minutes using VMware. After trying out multiple distributions (Suse 11, Open Suse 12.3 and Ubuntu 12.04) I decided to go with Open Suse 12.3 as it offered all pre-built libraries. No doubt, Ubuntu offers excellent user interface, suites more to a desktop users than programmers
  • Compiling kernel and booting up new image has become much simple. There are very less manual steps to be followed as some of them (ex: making entry into grub) is created automatically. I still remember how much challenging it was to get kernel 2.4.2 image with lilo loader up and running!
  • There are tons of Linux related documentation, help sites and real-time experience sharing happening which makes getting help much easier. Especially Stackoverflow (http://stackoverflow.com/), TLDP (http://www.tldp.org/) and Linux-cross reference (http://lxr.free-electrons.com/) seem to provide anything ranging from syntax to data structure tracing inside Kernel
  • For any theoretical reference, Slideshare (http://slideshare.net) is having excellent presentations, where I was able to quickly refer back in case any theoretical questions
  • Linux Kernel debugging ecosystem also matured as lot. There are a bunch of diagnostics tools available (I only used strace, printk though), which makes Kernel debugging much easier. Need to explore more on both user and kernel space Linux debugging tools

It was fun to catch-up with programming after a long time. Will share more ,as I explore more into the world of Linux, Kernel and Open source!