Archives For Random

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There are many times in the last year that I’ve looked at a problem and told myself – if anyone can do it, it is us (Google).  It certainly feels good working for a company that you can say that about.  I don’t write too often about my employer – my blog is mostly about my personal thoughts on technology, with occasional other topics.  But, today, I’m making an exception.

Working for Google leaves me being amazed at the scale, pace and breadth of innovation that happens here.  I was proud of my previous employer, no doubt – especially when I started there, I felt I was surrounded by some of the smartest minds in applied R&D as there can be (and that is still true).  But, what I see coming out of Google is absolutely mind boggling for the size we are as a company.

Collectively, the announcements around Google Wallet, Google+, Hangouts, the Knowledge Graph and a bunch of other things are demonstrating innovation at an unparalleled pace.  And while a good amount of this is coming from Google, it is also setting up for an innovating ecosystem to thrive.

While some of these improvements are small, taken independently, the collective advancements are inspiring.  Clearly, hardware and software have different life cycles and it would be unfair to compare the pace of advancements in the two areas – but, with the likes of Samsung and HTC producing stunning devices and Android providing a thriving platform for innovation, I see that the future of mobile is evolving more rapidly than ever before!

Of course, like anything else, it is not a company without its own problems and growing pains.  I’m going to refrain from discussing those here.  Instead, for today, I’m just going to leave it at calling out the amazing stuff that we have all just seen talked about at I/O!

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As I listened to a CEO (with an impressive background of a pipeline of senior titles) of a young, somewhat already successful company deliver a keynote at an extremely popular conference to an audience of about a 1000 people or more, I wondered about this – why are there so few execs who can really capture the audience?  I will refrain from the particulars of the individual, because it is not important.  The presentations that followed were all similarly styled – eye charts on colorful tables for the most part.  We are all familiar with this – sitting through boring presentations that page through packed bullets and tables on slides and conclude with 10 takeaways packing the last slide.  Why didn’t someone give these people a lesson on presentations?  Why do they fail to learn from the most brilliant presentations that have been delivered by a select few leaders and visionaries?

I’ve been guilty of packing a lot of material on slides, but over the years, I’ve increasingly learned that it doesn’t help.  The corporate template in a previous company I worked for was designed to fit more text than available default templates in PowerPoint.  It is really tempting to fit that one last relevant point, without which the presentation will be so incomplete!

I’m not going to say that there is a blanket rule about how to do presentations – of course, the audience and scope of the presentations should help us tune it appropriately.  And sometimes, slides are guiding material for a deeply technical discussion – a substitute for a white board (although it is a terrible idea generally speaking, it may make sense at times).  In those cases, go ahead and put your equations on the slides and pack it up with barely readable font that can be zoomed into for your discussion!  But, more often than not, you are presenting to an audience that wants the gist of your talk and is potentially coming in without the deep knowledge you have in the topic you are about to talk about.

Many people have written about how to give presentations and there are many that make a career teaching people how to present effectively.  There are a couple that I consider amazing material that is a must-read for anyone doing a talk for any sizable audience:

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Simon James On Giving A Research Talk

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Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule

The Internet is filled with tons of other content on how to do presentations, but these two are what you’ll need to check out for the most part.

I’ll close with a few points on what should be on our minds while preparing for a talk.  Much of this is borrowed or observed from inspiring thoughts and presentations from some of the best speakers out there.

  • When slides don’t matter
    There are some truly amazing speakers.  So good they don’t need something on the monitors to engage the audience or assist with talking points.  When you are that good, skip the slides entirely.  Or, fill it up with junk.  Because, you are the focus of the audience when you are that good.  But, many of us are not in this category and hence need to focus on other points.
  • Know the key message your talk should focus on
    Every talk needs to drive home no more than one message to its audience.  Not two, not three, just one.  Focus on that and make sure the entire deck is converging towards that message.
  • Tell a story around the key message
    Humans think and connect in terms of stories rather well.  So, tell a story.  Not on your slides, but construct a flow of a story in your head, leading up to the key message.
  • Your slides are not the handout material
    Don’t treat your slides as the handout material – if you need material that will live beyond the talk, create a separate version or add notes.  Your live audience does not need to be tortured with tiny fonts because you may have other readers – after all, if your audience didn’t think the talk was great, you failed anyway!
  • Resist the temptation to use bullets
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  • Look at your audience, engage them, take cues
    Understand when you need to pivot your talk in some way by observing your audience.  It is really hard to do this when you are already nervous about the talk, but, this is as powerful as it gets.  Engage your audience when you can.  Make it interactive rather than a lecture.
  • Don’t leave your passion behind!
    Last but not the least, be absolutely, truly passionate about your talk.  If you are not passionate about the topic, try not doing the talk! There are circumstances when your job requires you to do presentations, but, try to be in it.  You’ll enjoy your job a lot more that way too!

Great ideas need to be communicated.  An idea is only worthwhile if others can see the value of it.  Presentations are clearly important.  Make a conscious effort to do them right!

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I am so disappointed with HBR today.  It is one of the sites that I always believed had high quality content – but, that changed a bit today, when a tweet in my feed took me to the blog post of Kyle Wiens on why he would never hire anyone with poor grammar.

As a disclaimer, about 10 years ago, I would have totally sided with Kyle on this. Sloppy grammar is simply sloppy.  But, various experiences in my career have allowed me to mature a bit more than that.  And I can now definitely differentiate among lack of attention to detail as a fundamental nature, lack of attention to detail in secondary tasks and just sloppy language.  And they are not the same thing!

In his post, Kyle writes about how good programming relates to good writing, as one example of how good language skills apply to all disciplines.  There is no doubt that good writing reflects clarity of thought and the ability to pay attention to detail – however, the converse is not true, as experience might tell us.  Certainly not in all disciplines.  Consider all those people whose native language is not English.  Are we supposed to penalize all those researchers for being incapable of expressing excruciating amounts of detail in the English language?

I have come across many people (some very senior folks at extremely successful organizations) with sloppy grammar in the course of my career in technology.  Capitalization errors.  Not knowing the correct number of spaces after a comma or a fullstop.  Not knowing the difference between “it’s” and “its”.  Incorrectly using “affects” when it should be “effects” or vice-versa.  And so on.  Sometimes I think it’s even fashionable to write bad grammar – I can’t seem to get by a few days without running into something on TechCrunch that is grammatically so incorrect that it makes me cringe!  I have actually analyzed this a fair bit – I’m cynical and critical myself and this has certainly not escaped my observations.  I’ve seen how, with certain people, this trait also reflects a muddled up state of the mind, where there does exist a correlation between sloppy language and lack of clarity in thinking overall.  Usually, these people turn out to be native English speakers.  In some cases, these people have overlapping thoughts that get in the way of each other – such people can confuse themselves and their audience and they are often fighting several thoughts that aren’t taken to completion.  This would lead to the hypothesis that Kyle is right in his post.

However, the important thing is to also look at several other people that are unable to write grammatically correct language, but exhibit an amazing degree of clarity in thought and cognitive ability that sets them apart.  More often than not, these people are non native speakers of English, but not as a rule.  As someone who has done extensive amount of hiring and can pride myself on arguably hiring some of the most amazing talent in the field of technology, I can now tell how to look for the people that can pay attention to detail.  In the end, I believe that is really what the HBR post is trying to get at – although I’m not sure that Kyle realizes that.

There are two classes of these people – ones that pay attention to detail always and ones that pay attention to detail where it matters.  The former category is safe – these are people who will make good employees.  The latter category is tricky – how do you know upfront if they will pay attention to detail where it matters to you and your organization rather than only where it matters to them?  Filtering this is a skill you acquire and can’t easily be taught.  The important reality is that these are the people that will take your organization to the next level.  Knowing where to pay attention to detail and what one should let go of is hard – but, that is what defines great leadership!  The ability to spot those people takes talent too – and great leadership starts there!

Pay attention to people’s language skills – but, connect it to their cognitive skills in the area of importance to you.  Remember that you are after attention to detail… for the right set of things.