Archives For November 2013

boss vs leader

Over the years, I’ve had the chance to observe several mid, high and executive level leaders in action, in very close quarters.  I’ve had the opportunity to work closely with several of them as well as observe many more in their journey to deliver strategies and results. Those of us that have attempted leadership know that leadership is hard and involves much more beyond technical expertise. Every now and then, we run into leaders that are not great at what they do. After observing several managers and leaders, I’ve realized that there is one cardinal quality that makes or breaks a leader – and that is the ability to motivate people.

Especially for engineers, the ability to motivate is inherently hard.  This is because in order to motivate, they need to focus on the positives.  And as engineers, we’ve been trained to identify problems and continuously strive to optimize further.  A good engineer is able to identify problems, solve them and optimize the solutions until it is nearly perfect.  A less than perfect solution is not satisfactory. And this attitude poses a huge challenge as engineers grow to be leaders of other engineers.

Being an engineer as well as an Indian is a double whammy, speaking for myself. Indians are trained for competitive spirit with the mantra of being first and the best in everything we do. I am quite sure there are other cultures that fall into this category, but I cannot speak with confidence about that.

As I sat through all-hands meetings at various levels of leadership along the years, in successful companies nonetheless, I’ve seen some leaders that are able to instill an enthusiasm to deliver even more amazing things and some that are downright awful at inspiring.  For some, even as they talk about the wonderful accomplishments of teams, it is difficult not to follow that up with “but, we have big challenges ahead of us”.  This shows they never dwell in their glory and keep their eyes on the future (which is good for a leader), but, it also shows that they don’t quite understand what drives people.

This morning, as I fought one of my son’s worst tantrums as I got him ready to school, I gave in to my anger and frustration. Ultimately, I managed to get him in the car – but, it made me reflect on just how I failed on infusing the motivation of going to school (to be sure, I broke down after several attempts of motivation failed, but that is only incidental in the big picture). Engineering leadership is not unlike that.  We will run into people of varying capabilities and drives that makes motivating all of them a tough job.

Motivational ability is hardly a singleton quality in engineering leadership.  It is often the confluence of several other qualities.  Leaders that inspire must be capable enough in the eyes of the teams they lead or their words will not be construed as inspiration.  This does not mean that they know all the details of the team’s work, but it does mean that they can understand the details when they need to, connect the dots and provide guidance at just the right level.

Great leaders are those that junior members aspire to be someday.  They show by gestures that they care and want the best for their people.  Some of the qualities they possess are worth highlighting.

  • They take the time often to reflect on the team’s accomplishments and truly recognize them, in words and gestures.  Their voice shows they mean it when they publicly recognize the greatness of the team.  They say it multiple times to be sure beyond a doubt that the team understands how much their efforts are appreciated.
  • They take the time to learn how to say people’s names (they can never be caught pronouncing your name incorrectly).
  • They ask often how they can do better on ensuring a job match for you.
  • They don’t try to do your job for you. Engineers have a hard time with this, as they have this urge to do better and feel they can do better than others.  As they get less time for detailed analysis, this leads to frustrations on both sides.
  • They don’t wait to have tough conversations. They have it early so they can provide the opportunity to course correct where needed.

But, above everything, great leaders can motivate.  All else is secondary as they march their teams forward!

Twitter brings curation and quick summaries together.  In an information overloaded world, that is powerful.  But until they can prove they understand user experience, it is hard for me to take them seriously.  

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Twitter’s IPO has been big news.  After all the speculation on their valuation and the criticism of not having that critical woman board member, a 63% spike on their opening price was not a bad show!  26% of teenagers think Twitter is an important social network.  Evidence suggests that people are more likely to follow influencers on Twitter than on blogs or any other places.  Snapchat, the ephemeral photo exchange app, is valued at least at $3B.  The average age of Facebook users is going up and the younger generation is migrating to the cooler places – Twitter, Vine, Snapchat, etc.

Twitter has taken short communications to the mainstream in a massive way.  SMS was always fairly popular – but, Twitter took it to new levels of popularity by providing equivalent functionality, only richer in content!  Other apps such as Whatsapp and Snapchat have followed suit in a similar vision of short messages, but branching in the type and mode of content exchanged – and in Snapchat’s case – limiting the time to live for a piece of content.

While there are a number of possible explanations for the wildly growing popularity of this style of messaging, one that I think is a major contributor is human attention span.  Variety is interesting.  Holding our attention span for long on one topic is hard.  Topics get boring.  Just as the tide was turning from theres-a-lot-of-information-to-catch-up-on to struggling-to-keep-up-with-the-information-pace-and-volume, these short messaging innovations caught up with us.  The illusion of being able to catch up with information quickly is attractive.  Being able to quickly produce content also helps – a single picture or a few words can get it out there.

Curation combined with short messages surely allow us to see a preview of information, leaving it for us to decide whether we want to consume more.  Of course, this is simply hiding information behind yet another level of indirection – a typical computer science solution to problems.  The real content is buried in links that are increasingly shared as these short messages.  These links often lead us to more old style “blogs” (I’m guilty as charged!).

Bringing curation and quick summaries together is clearly the strength of the Twitter class of platforms.

Yet, taking Twitter seriously is tough for me.  Why so?  Fundamentally because they are yet to prove they understand user experience. Reading the Twitter stream on the Twitter app on the phone is painful.  There is nothing that screams “come spend time on me” on this interface!  If you want to see a worse design of a new generation app, you can take a look at Quora, but, we’ll stay on Twitter for now.

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The highlighted stuff provides zero semantically useful information. The user name gets a bold typeface, but then, the picture already tells me who the user is!  The rest of the text is all uniform, resulting in a massive stream of text on the screen!

This is why it is hard for me to take Twitter seriously.  The real brilliance in next generation content sharing is going to be two-fold – semantic information extraction and presentation.  At one glance, I should be able to extract the most meaningful summary of the content I’m trying to consume.  Once this happens, the need for platform level indirection (i.e., Twitter leading to TechCrunch) decreases – rather, the summary can come directly from the content provider.  Although, as innovation goes, it is unlikely that it will come from the content provider and hence, some platform that summarizes and presents (note that it doesn’t have to be the same one doing both) will likely evolve.

Could that be Twitter in the future? It will certainly be great shareholder value if Twitter can figure that out!  But until then, I will continue reading my tweets on Flipboard, ignoring the full page Twitter app ad that now regularly appears in my Flipboard stream.  After all, flipping over it only takes a second!

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For centuries, we human beings are used to having separate worlds in our lives.  Our parents, our friends, our managers, our peers, our teachers, our children – the list goes on.  We often maintain different personalities with the different worlds and rarely are we comfortable with details about who we are in one world leaking into one of the other worlds.  As a diehard Seinfeld fan, this brings to mind George’s fear of colliding of worlds (Independent George, Relationship George) as Jerry happily hooks up Elaine and Susan!

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When I read articles such as the NYTimes one on “They Loved Your G.P.A. Then They Saw Your Tweets“, I always come away with mixed feelings about what role the social networking landscape should play on one’s life – in this case, education, perhaps something else in another case.  This is certainly not the first article written about the reality of colliding worlds and it won’t be the last.  As we become more trackable via sensors, the problem of collisions is going to be huge.  As a society, are we really prepared for it?

Before we answer that question, let’s recall the role that man’s inventions have played on evolving our societal norms over the years.  From the evolution of commerce to banking to recent techniques of sending money via email, one of communication from pigeon carriers to snail mail to all kinds of electronic modes available now, etc., our society has evolved and adapted to inventions (technological and other) that have woven into people’s lives as an integral part.

Along the same lines, there is a massive force on social behavior at the moment, brought upon by all the myriad of information that is available about us online.  I wrote on Quora about the different ways in which one can lose privacy today – for all those reasons and more, evidence of our behavior is smeared in bits of information all over the place.  It is futile to fight it or try to revert or delete it all.  And yet, I believe this is the among the most difficult changes inflicted on society by human inventions.

Despite all the changes that have come about, the notion of a relationship role is one that has undergone little to no change from times immemorial.  And I mean relationship in the broadest of senses – what a student is to a teacher, what a child is to a parent, what friends are to each other, etc.  And despite the huge changes that have happened in the ways we communicate, how we handle these different personas have more or less remained the same.

And today, this is all in jeopardy.  Not only that, but it is rapidly changing – before we are ready for it.  Previously, to impress a potential employer, we could put our best foot forward and know that that is going to be what counts for the most part.  The equivalent of information leaks in that world would have been things like knowing a common intersection of people from one of your different worlds that may divulge undesirable information about you.  This was not a common occurrence in the big scheme of things.

Today, it is a reality everywhere. There is no place to hide.  And this makes all the difference.  Unfortunately, just as in any other case, technology will end up influencing human social behavior more so than accepted societal norms defining the future of technology in this space. We have to be more cognizant about this in our actions.  Be it an educational institution that figures out just how much your tweets count towards your admissions or a student that figures out how to develop a social profile that augments their admissions – we will eventually reach equilibrium. Until then, it’s a rocky road ahead and we have to ride along!

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Do I belong to a minority in that I often find myself in situations where I cannot quite watch a video, but am looking to catch up on something?  With content increasingly migrating to video online, this is proving to be a hindrance to me.  There are many situations – I’m on public transport or trying to put my kids to bed – when I have the time to catch up on something, but cannot quite watch a video.  Are we always expected to have access to headphones and be ready to consume video/audio?

Surely, interactive content can be more engaging.  But, if you are anything like me, you have no special “catching up” or “recreational” time.  This is time that comes out of multi tasking – when I’m doing something else as my primary task and decide to catch up on news or other content as a secondary activity.  If I couldn’t do that, I’d never catch up.  But, this also means that more often than not, I’m looking for written content.  Something I can switch tasks with more easily.  Something that is unobtrusive to my environments, whatever I may be doing.

I must also admit that I find some videos excruciatingly slow in terms of “getting to the point”.  Print allows me to scan and find the most relevant things at my own pace, which I cannot do with video – I am stuck to the pace of the speaker or the content progression, which I usually find slows me down.

There are obviously exceptions to this, where a video on a topic may in fact be the quickest way to consume the content.  Of course, the preference of video vs print is also likely to vary across individuals and I’m sure there are many people who prefer consuming video.

But, my rule of thumb is this – if you need to take more than 30 seconds of my time, give me the text version and let me do it at my pace.

I wonder if automatic transcription of video/audio into text is the next thing that must happen at scale to handle this.  Know the user’s situation and render content in the right medium!