Archives For August 2012

Okay, it’s not fair that I am not going to write about the good.  But, only because that list is too long.  I absolutely love my Macbook Air and I wouldn’t trade it for anything… for the most part.  But I would never trade it for any Windows machine, ever.  Trading thoughts cross my mind only when I think about the Macbook Pro. I’m a recent Mac convert and was highly suspicious that the hype might be overrated, before I bought one. But, it is worth all the hype and more.  Like any other Mac user, I will never go back! It is a pleasure to use, a productivity enhancer and more.  I am no longer afraid of closing the lid (I was terrified of closing my Windows machine, given how long it took to regain wireless connectivity when I opened it again!).

So, what’s bad about it? I wish this wonderful keyboard had 2 more keys – ‘Home’ and ‘End’! Those are the two keys I miss from my Windows machines. All other missing keys are well compensated for – for e.g., I never once miss the Page Up/Down keys, given the fantastic, smooth gesture support on the trackpad. I don’t really miss the ‘Delete’ key (the ‘delete’ on the Mac is the Backspace equivalent), given how easy it is to precisely place the cursor using the trackpad again. But the ‘Home’ and ‘End’ keys are handy.

Okay, so, that was somewhat small, maybe even bordering on silly (how many times do you use the ‘Home’ or the ‘End’ buttons – the inconvenience is in the noise when you consider the net gain in productivity overall arising from platform stability). So, then, how come there is an Ugly side, you ask. Well, this becomes specific to the Air. It falls a little short as a primary engineering work machine. Simultaneous multiple instances of Chrome, video playback, SSH and code compilation seems to be a bit too much to handle. It’s not that it gets noticeably sluggish – far before the machine slows down to any extent, it gets uncomfortably hot and the fans are blowing at a disconcerting volume! You see, if you used a Windows machine, you would be so used to the CPU grumbling loudly all the time that you will hardly notice it.  But, a couple of days of Mac usage can spoil you. Now you start hearing the fan (which is 10x softer than the fan on any hardware running Windows).  This alone might make me swap my Macbook Air for a Pro.

All told, I love my Macbook Air – I have no idea how I functioned without it for so long 🙂

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Mobile browsers suck. All of them. Well, most of them anyway. The default Android browser (this probably takes the cake for terrible browsers). Safari. Opera. Chrome. You name it, it sucks. The discussion is only about which browser is the “best” at what it is supposed to do – not which browser delivers a fantastic user experience. This is one of the reasons I simply don’t use the browser on my phone for the most part. In a digital age that is going towards personalization and summarization, information I need is synthesized and delivered much more elegantly by a suite of applications. The likes of Pulse and Flipboard also spawn their own browser instantiations to deliver the overflow content. The font sizes are actually human readable, the experience flows well and most of the time, it is all I need.

So, what is wrong with the browsers and why do they suck so badly? The primary reason for this is that browsers try to deliver the exact same functionality on the mobile as on a desktop. It treats the user no differently. It requires you typing keywords or URLs and navigating to where you need to go. Not to mention the mobile tailored websites with a small amount of acceptably formatted content, navigating through which leads to broken links or horribly rendered content in subsequent parts. While many browsers attempt to resize upon pinch and zoom, it doesn’t work enough number of times for this to be annoying.

Why would the browser try to mirror the big screen experience on the small screen? We don’t use the small screen devices nearly in the same way. We don’t multi-task on our phones at the same scale (no, I am not siding with the first generation iOS here!). We want just the right information delivered in just the right way! So, why is it so difficult to repackage the content in a browser to extract the main parts of it and deliver it just like the user might want it? Fold and add indirection to all other things – navigation bars, headers, side bars, etc. Pull out images and render them in a way that does not make it laborious to navigate to the text. Yet, make the images the center of the focus. Simplify the functionality 10-fold. You simply do not need to be able to do everything that you can do on a 13″ screen! Instead, there is an earnest effort in packaging all of the complexity into the small screen – dozens of tabs, all the extraneous information on a website that prevents me from getting to the information the user needs and so on.

When contextual discovery becomes a reality, how is it going to be delivered? Packaged into this annoying framework of a browser or by actually turning a new leaf and bringing a more immersive experience? At the present state of the browsers, HTML5 based apps are a joke. They may be technically ready (some are not, but they might get there), but are definitely handicapped from a design perspective. Until a major revamp, I’m not going to be ready for any browser based apps on my small screen devices!

Is the browser the most frequently used app on the phone for any of you? Or even among the top 5 apps you use on your phone? I want to hear from you! Tell me what I’m missing.

I never once thought this day would come. When I was graduating, my advisor told me that he would denounce me as his student if I went to work for Microsoft. (The fact that I went to Redmond and almost went to work for Microsoft remained a semi-secret to him for a long time!).

I’m not a Microsoft fan by any means and I actually think there are a lot of products that are done better by other people. But, I do think that when it comes to productivity apps, Microsoft got it right. Especially with calendar.

Strictly as mail clients, Mac mail and Gmail work just fine, but as an integrated calendaring and email tool, Outlook is leaps and bounds better. And, I’m not talking about the integration with Exchange – I’m only referring to the frontend usability here. How does a calendaring tool get away without the ability to look at the invitees’ calendars while scheduling a meeting? Or, the ability to click on a meeting and email the invitees? Or, the ability to include a note in the response to a meeting request? The lack of integration between the email and calendar aspects in Mac mail and Gmail makes those so unbelievably behind in functionality from Outlook!

Now on to iWorks or Google Docs vs the rest of MS Office. Word is alright and on balance, not substantially better than its equivalent ‘i’ and ‘G’ tools. But, Powerpoint vs. Presently is a comparison that will surely end in favor of Microsoft in its current stage. But then again, Keynote has it beat, especially with its feature of creating and using multiple Masters in a deck.

The reality is that the memory management in Microsoft software packages suck and that causes a horrible experience in any intensive piece of software. Ever tried using wacky Powerpoint templates that consume large amounts of memory and keeping them open for hours while working on them? Well, probably not, given that your state-of-the-art machine would have come to a crawl long before the lapse of a few hours! But, on the calendar front, I have to say I really do miss Outlook!

Empowering Women

August 15, 2012 — 2 Comments

I am attempting to clarify what I really meant in my post on Women-in-engineering style groups.  To get it straight, I absolutely believe in empowering women.  I think women should fully well pursue their professional dreams and paths and never feel limitations imposed by the gender. There are some natural (and physical) impediments that gender brings, but none whatsoever that will limit women in accomplishing what they wish to in many professional careers.  To that end, I am always willing to extend help and mentoring in getting women to reach those goals.

What I particularly encourage women to NOT do is to impose artificial constraints on themselves by imagining or positioning gender as a limiting factor in the equation. If you look around, you will find that the portion of male professionals who are not strong enough to be leaders or who do not have the confidence or charisma or will or personality to pull off what is needed for outstanding professional leadership is not statistically insignificant.  I have encountered a number of men, many of them technically brilliant, that simply cannot connect the dots and accomplish the transference into a brilliant vision that it takes to make good leaders.  So, why do we then see so disappointingly few women in top leadership positions? The problem very much resides in the fact that so few women actually decide to take up professional careers. That combined with the perception that women are emotionally weaker is a real problem. There are cultural and traditional outlooks to change and overcome to really empower women at the fullest, no doubt.  But, the first step towards that is to empower them to start the journey on this road to professional endeavors.  As more women take this journey, the community gets more samples to dispel the myths and correct the incorrect perceptions.

The destinations will come.  Opportunities are rarely given, they are more often created.  Once you begin the journey, you will see what branches can create the right opportunities.  But, a road not taken remains mysterious and intimidating.

So, for all the women out there, don’t be afraid to start the journey. Know that you know as much as an equally qualified male next to you. Know that speaking up is not only not bad, it can also be good. Consider and assert yourself as an equal and you will find soon enough that you are treated as one!

(I encourage all readers of this post to also read my post on Empowering Women, which clarifies what I wrote here further.)

Every company has a special group (well, a few special groups sometimes) for Women Engineers. They’ve been around me a lot – everywhere. It needs to exist – it is mandatory for the morale, really.

So, when I got the first email at Google about a group for women engineers, it wasn’t surprising.  Maybe I should go to one of these. Maybe I will learn something and be inspired. Over the years, I’ve also had a few invitations to speak at some of these, which I’ve never accepted either.  I have nothing against these groups – just that it never climbed up high enough on my priority list to do it.

There is something about these groups that bother me at the corner of my brain and that is fundamentally the reason I have never put in an effort to be part of these. Are these groups making us women engineers look like we are crying out for attention? Are these “misery loves company” outlets? Are these indicating that we have a need to be treated differently? Or that we just need a venting outlet to deal with the male dominated engineering world?

I’ve always heard these rants from women on how it has been really tough to keep up with the men and be considered one of them. Someone once told me how women always have to rise up through the ranks and prove themselves out, sometimes by being note takers, in order for their potential to be seen. I feel for the women who feel this way, but I must say, as someone who has always been the “only woman in the team” and has constantly been surrounded by male engineers and managers, it’s not the only way. I find myself perfectly comfortable sitting in a room full of male engineers, many of whom I may have never met before. Or, presenting to an audience composed of hundreds of male engineers. Or, proposing projects in a room full of senior management people, where the only women are in non-engineering management. It always comes down to the confidence you can feel deep inside and whether you, as the woman, think of it as a problem in your head. I never felt it was necessary for me to start out as a note taker in order to be taken seriously or for my comments to be heard. I have paid my dues as any other engineer, but nothing that I felt was specifically attributed to my gender.

That is what I think is my fundamental problem with these groups. No question I’ve had my share of feeling the gender issues – aside from some crazy managers that have come along my way, the shift in conversation style the moment I enter a room full of otherwise male engineers has not gone unnoticed. Or, having that uncomfortable moment in leading a bunch of senior, (male) engineers.

At the end of the day, I prefer being one of the group, not discriminating myself in my own head in ways that will interfere with my confidence or my ability to lead, learn or deliver anything. There is a rush that comes with execution that speaks for itself that does not come with any type of gang chanting of the female mantra, at least for me. I’m sure there will be many more crossroads where I need to make the choice on whether to join these supportive women-in-engineering (or pick-your-favorite-discipline) groups.  I feel like a jerk ignoring them and I feel needy embracing them – but, hopefully I will figure it out one of these days!

Working for the big G, I’m getting a taste of what it is like to be on the ‘other’ side. My previous employers, Motorola and Qualcomm, were obviously more worried about the terminals (or STA or UE or phone or device, depending on the language of choice). I certainly knew in great detail how the network and the servers operated, but, more deeply and passionately cared about what they did to the end device in the hands of the user and what it resulted in as an experience on that device. Saving milliseconds and building minimalistic protocols that were optimized to the last bit were all very important.

I also personally subscribe to the end-to-end principle and hence, truly believe in empowering the client devices. When I fought to shave off half a roundtrip from protocols at the IETF, I was always puzzled by how many people didn’t get it. The roundtrip times on the Internet haven’t exactly followed Moore’s law (they weren’t meant to!). Not to mention that additional roundtrips often presented opportunities to endure further processing delays at various points (more stack times, queue times, and so on). More opportunities for TCP to buckle. There is often nothing good about it (if you were bootstrapping and needed liveness checks or if you were building perfect forward secrecy in key management protocols, sure – go ahead and pack on the roundtrips, but where you don’t need them, don’t!).

Now, I get to be on the ‘other’ side – the side that cares deeply and passionately about the network and the datacenters and the servers. This is a strange switch for me – the same principles turned inside out in points of view. I can see how if you never spent time caring about the end devices, you can be oblivious to the needs of it. But the two points of view are not really at odds, I see. I should be able to apply the lessons learned from the mobile and wireless sides and leverage those to bring an overall perspective to the problem at hand. Of course, Google isn’t about any one side – clearly, mobile is part of the equation. But, it’s certainly more a case where it is “also” part of the equation. There is no mistaking the domination of the network and datacenters.

As I get enlightened about software defined networking, I get to find out whether the demise of the end-to-end principle is real and just how much in denial I have been! I have a sneaky suspicion that by twisting the meaning of Saltzer’s views, I will find a way in which the end-to-end principle holds for the other point of view as well 🙂

The Future of Web Apps! Chrome accomplished in four years what Firefox or Safari could never do all these years – bypass IE in number of users! Amazing feat, given all the stories we know about Microsoft’s push for IE on all Windows devices! However, as I struggle to get used to all the things I now need to do in Chrome (yeah, I now work for its creator), the FOWA story gets scarier to me – what if web apps take over my digital world?

For me, using apps in a browser is like living in a box – a closed one at that! The cool thing about native apps is that they have a personality – an individuality that defines each app in a way that makes you bond with it.  The concept of web apps rips that out and attaches the personality to the serving browser – in the process, all the apps used feel subservient to the all mighty browser!  Further, switching across apps requires careful inspection of all the tab titles, which drives me completely insane! Does no one feel the loss of productivity or the massive cognitive overload that comes with this?

If you are going to do web apps, how about getting it right?! It is feasible to deliver the native app experience in a web app to a large extent – if only we can get the players to focus on the user experience! The present problem is that the world of web apps is being built by the geeks.  Does Apple need to step in to make it ready for the masses? Or is there anyone out there to save the native apps experience?!