Can Google+ still find its way back?

When Google launched Google+ (somewhere in 2011, after its earlier Buzz debacle), Facebook had already established itself as numero uno in social space. But then, Google being Google, we expected them to pull something new out of the hat and catch up  – Facebook wasn’t entirely out of reach yet. Obviously, just another social network clone wouldn’t cut it. Something had to be different.

The way I looked at it then, I thought the difference was clear, and it was apparent in the DNA of both companies. Facebook was an ego-centric network – people who already knew each other could easily connect online to form a network, and then share information and content, and grow their network organically. Google+ was the reverse (given Google’s search and information legacy) – people were looking for content, and social networks could emerge around common interests. I had written about this difference in this earlier article – The difference between Facebook and Google+.

Both companies were looking to find that commercial sweet spot at the intersection of social and content, where user needs could be supplemented with the right context, content and social affirmation. Facebook was reaching out to that intersection inside-out and Google+ was looking to reach the same sweet spot outside-in. Certainly, there was and is a good case to be made for both approaches. In fact, Twitter had already occupied the other end of the spectrum from Facebook – free flowing content in a more open social network model and interest groups emerging in real-time around hashtags. There was definitely a space in between Twitter and Facebook that offered great commercialization potential – social networks reaching beyond friends and family but not as ephemeral as the ones constantly getting formed and destroyed on Twitter, content that went beyond interpersonal exchanges but not as wildly divergent and unstructured as that on Twitter. It was this space that Google+ could have tried to carve out and own. Circles was a good start.

Circles (in Google+) was a malleable concept – it could accommodate close-knit personal relationship based social networks as well as group networks formed around shared interests. Its malleability probably led Google to believe that people would eventually come over to the platform that allowed them to manage their entire spectrum of social networks at one place. YouTube was a good example – personal videos shared privately with near and dear ones and other kinds of videos broadcast to larger audiences, all on the same platform. Couldn’t that be replicated for photos? For all kinds of information sharing, in general? Everybody had a Gmail account anyway. It was just a matter of time. If people could move from Orkut to Facebook, they could move from Facebook to Google+ too, given all the goodies that were on offer. They could move from Twitter too, personal and public walls at the same place. Google+ could out-facebook Facebook. Google+ could out-twitter Twitter.

In hindsight, we can wonder – was this the point where Google lost its plot? Did they try to do too much – and end up pushing themselves into the perceived “winner takes all” corner? Did they underestimate the stickiness and network effects of a well-established social network? Did they goof up on their core differentiation, other items notwithstanding? Did they unknowingly shift their path to that golden content-intersects-social egg from outside-in to inside-out and thereby mutate into another Facebook clone? If Google had acquired Twitter, would they have been forced to take a different trajectory? I believe so.

While Google+ lost its way, Facebook continued to be true to its ego-centric core. Both Whatsapp and Instagram (the big ticket acquisitions)  were true to its central objective – providing people effective channels to share and discuss with their immediate social networks. Pages. Games. Books. Photos. Messenger.  Sure, there were some hiccups too – their delay on building a good mobile offering and increasing clutter probably resulted in them losing some bit of their “cool” quotient to other social network players. But they have been true to their core DNA. It shows in their suite of offerings.

On the other hand, Google+ started getting obsessed with linking user identities from across multiple products to a single real user profile. Without a common real user profile, how could the forces of “social” be brought to bear upon all the applications that now sat under the Google+ umbrella? Unwittingly, Google was copying and facing off with Facebook on the Facebook side of the spectrum. Google Photos. Facebook Photos. Hangouts. Messenger. Google Pages. Facebook Pages. Similar applications for the same audience, with the same use cases. But Facebook had the clear upper hand in this fight – they had the social network. Google could have avoided this fight completely. They should have started from the Twitter side of the spectrum.

Google+ Photos – a good place to store your photos, but what can you do with those photos – except sharing them on Facebook? Google never built a use case around its original differentiating strategy, photos that represented common interests, around which interest groups could organically emerge. Pinterest went ahead and occupied that space. If Google+ had stayed true to their DNA and focused on creating niche content-driven emergent social networks, Photos would have automatically evolved into Pinterest.

Hangouts – an excellent product, but who can you talk to?  Friends and family are on Whatsapp/Facebook Messenger anyway, and customers and office colleagues don’t prefer connecting with Google+ ids. Hangouts on Air had/ has the potential to develop into a revolutionary public/interest group collaboration platform (a legitimate super-kid of YouTube and Hangouts). I wouldn’t be surprised if somebody focuses on and takes over this space soon.

There is plenty of potential still left in this space, beyond the applications currently on offer. Take TripAdvisor for example. It has evolved into a credible platform for travelers to share and consume content and collaborate on travel interests. Now add Hangouts, Photos, Blogs to the mix and imagine the richness of context and social networks that can emerge around travel use cases. Extend the same logic to Art, Hobbies, Social Work, Education, Agriculture. We are surrounded by contexts where we do form social networks around shared interests, that are ephemeral to start with but eventually crystallize into something more permanent and meaningful.

Some farmers in India, across district and state boundaries, have formed communities using Whatsapp groups to discuss and share best practices. But they had to build these communities manually, organically. Can Google+ create an option where a farmer can broadcast his message to all other farmers in his district, who are growing the same crop? Can a social network emerge instantaneously around this broadcasted message? Why not?

If they don’t, someone else surely will.

We need to celebrate and demand Good Films

I was watching the trailer of a Marathi film “Court” yesterday. Looks like a must watch film! There have been many must watch Marathi films released over the last 3-4 years. The industry is going through a renaissance. It deserves more support and patronage, more viewers. However, most viewers tend to have linguistic preferences and sadly, prejudices too.
Will reserving some prime time slots for Marathi films solve the problem? The hypothesis is that there are many Maharashtrians who want to watch Marathi movies but are unable to watch them because they aren’t available at prime time. Sure, this will work for some percentage of the population. Is this percentage large enough?  Perhaps not.
Maybe we are trying to solve the wrong problem. What if we try to solve a different problem – how to get people to overcome their inertia of preference and prejudice and help them make the choice of watching a good film (in any language) instead of any film (even mediocre ones as long as it ticks the boxes of language, hero etc.)?
Clearly its not just a question of showing excellent Marathi movies at prime time. We need to solve the demand problem. Supply will adapt to meet demand.
I think we need some education first. We need to celebrate good films. Good Marathi films. Good Hindi films. Good Malayalam films. Good Bengali films. Good English films. Good films. We need film festivals.
One week a quarter should do it. All over India. 2 days for local films. 2 days for national films (not in local language). 2 days for international ( including non English) films. 1 day for Hindi films too – the best ones. Access should be heavily subsidized, or even better, free. Give people a taste of what they are missing.
After a year, reserve a few prime time slots every week for the best films, with local films given higher priority. Gradually scale up slots as demand increases – it surely will.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 5 years down the line we don’t need 4 reserved weeks of film festivals every year, if every week, every day -  becomes a festival of the best films?

There is something odd about Ghodbunder Road

Last Diwali my mother-in-law was applying tika on my forehead. “You have so much more grey hair now as compared to last year!”, she observed. It was one of those profound moments-of-truth kind of moments.

Is it age catching up? Or stress? There were other signs too. Back pain and knee pain. Taking the elevator instead of the stairs. Kids in their late teens calling me “Uncle”. Yeah, all the signs were there. But, how could all this have happened within a year? Its like, going to bed in your mid twenties, and waking up in your late thirties. 
And then I saw Interstellar.
As you probably know, Interstellar is about space-time fabric warping, worm holes and black holes and time travel – not the-going-back-in-time type but the traveling-very-fast-to-some-other-point-in-space-and-then-returning-equally-fast-to-where-you-started-but-only-to-realize-that-the-others-are-much-older type.
Putting it simply, black holes bend space time fabric, due to gravity. For a remote observer, time appears to slow down near black holes, so a traveler traveling near a black hole will age slower than one far away. Sometimes, when space time fabric is bent so much (almost like a hair pin) that you can jump from one point on the fabric to another, or travel through a connecting tunnel called a worm hole. In Interstellar (if I heard it right), somebody had placed a wormhole near Saturn. Why Saturn? I don’t know. I guess it was as good a place as any other. 
When I travel to office, I take a bus from home to Thane railway station, and then a train from there to Vashi. The bus goes via a road called Ghodbunder Road. Its a wonderful road that winds its way through foresty hilly terrain (very picturesque during monsoon) before straightening out into a wide highway road. There are no pot holes anywhere. You can drive above 40km/hr for most part of the day.

Those last two points are sufficient for anybody in Mumbai to smell a rat. How come this oasis in a desert?

There is another peculiar thing at play – when I am traveling on this road, time passes by rather slowly for me. It feels never-ending, like a slow motion movie. But for others, like my wife, waiting for me to get back home, time seems to be passing by fast enough. Sometimes when we are talking on the phone, and I mention that I am near so and so place on the way, she’s like – yeah, so you’ll be here in 25 minutes. For me, the 25 minutes always seem like 45 minutes. To add to the confusion, there is a bus AS-700 which actually is a slow-motion bus – there are stretches where it struggles to reach 20 kmph. The bus is probably a red herring – to throw people off the scent. Or maybe, whatever is impacting me, is impacting the bus too. Its aging prematurely as well, poor thing, gasping for breath and trundling along every day.

Before Interstellar, I thought I was going crazy. But now, I am not so sure. There is something odd about the road. People and stuff get old on this road, sooner. Some kind of reverse worm hole, some anti black hole or something. On the road, time ticks faster for the traveler and therefore seems slower (25 minutes seems like 45), while its ticking at normal pace for the people at the two ends of the road.

Ghodbunder Road must have been built by aliens or advanced humans returning from the future. They must have built it and then reprogrammed the memories of the contractors and laborers and the municipal authorities to make them think that they built it. One of the junctions is even called Teen Haath Naka (Three Handed Junction). If thats not a clue to alien origins I dont know what is.

I guess, I am one of the few people who knows what it would be like to travel through a worm-hole. Reverse worm-hole actually – you feel all energetic and full of life when you enter it and then you start feeling drowsy but cant sleep and then you start getting a headache and your eyes start to water and then your body starts aching but you cant stretch or anything and then you reach the other end looking like a wrung-out towel.

Yeah. That’s the reverse worm-hole experience. Worm-hole must be the opposite of that. You get in all drowsy and lethargic and as you go through it life becomes enjoyable and great and you are jumping up and down and all about and then you are out at the other end looking all normal and young and wondering why everybody around you is complaining so much about everything.

I am not getting prematurely old. I am not going crazy. ITS THE ROAD!

Books I read in 2014

In terms of reading, 2014 was a mixed year. I read in bursts –  I didn’t read a single book for many months together and then read a lot in some months. I even picked up a few books that I couldn’t complete and after some struggle, gave up. Was it the books or my state of mind? Time will tell.
These are the ones that I managed to read through. I have marked the ones that I especially liked with a *.

*Steve Jobs
Walter Isaacson

This book offers a much deeper insight into the personality of Steve Jobs, with all his idiosyncrasies. For me, the clear insight was the impact of Zen, and corresponding single minded focus on the unity of design and function.

*From Beirut to Jerusalem
by Thomas L. Friedman 
A set of articles of the author’s travels and observations in the Middle East.
*The Lost River: On The Trail of the Sarasvati
Michel Danino
Finally, a book that consolidates multiple views on the Indus-Saraswati civilization and provides a hypothesis that people on the subcontinent can easily vouch for as realistic and highly probable. A lot of water has flown past Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and all the action is on the banks of the river Saraswati. More in this book review.
*Hitler’s Scientists: Science, War, and the Devil’s Pact
John Cornwell
Is science truly neutral? Or, the better question would be, are scientists truly neutral? Where does their allegiance lie? Is there a definitive answer? How does political climate influence scientists, and therefore science? These are some of many interesting questions questions that pop up while reading this book and the questions are relevant even today.
Gods of War
Ashok Banker
I am a big fan of his Ramayana series of books (the first few books at least), and his 1st book of the Mahabharata series is quite wonderful. Gods of War is mythological futuristic science fiction. After an interesting start, the book gets convoluted and preachy.
*The Miniaturist
by Kunal Basu
The story is set in Akbar’s time. Its about a painter, a prodigy. A painter whose first teacher doesn’t teach him any rules, doesn’t let him see any other paintings so that he can be himself when he paints. How he finds his muse and is consumed by it. His blasphemous paintings. His exile from the land. His going blind. The story has a wonderful ending.
Mumbai Fables
by Gyan Prakash
The book strings together some events from Mumbai’s history to give insights into the multiple hues of Mumbai and how it has evolved over time. A bhel puri of sorts. An interesting read.
Longitudes and Attitudes: The World in the Age of Terrorism
by Thomas L. Friedman
This is a compilation of the author’s columns, notes and experiences of his post September 11 travels. There is evidence of the event’s impact on a journalist – it is difficult to be a neutral observer and keep sight of the big picture in such circumstances.
*Tales from Firozsha Baag
by Rohinton Mistry
A deep dive into the life of Parsi families staying in a Parsi colony – many intertwined stories. A wonderful read – about a unique community of Mumbai and India who live life to the fullest, in their own way.
Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States
by Bill Bryson
I have always been fascinated by patterns (memes), their origins and evolution, be it language, rituals, traditions or ideas. This book explores the influence of USA on English, driven by people from Europe as well as native Americans, the geography, occupations, events etc. The book has its share of interesting and dry patches.
The Extras
Kiran Nagarkar
Another Mumbai book, set in a central Mumbai chawl. It takes some really strange twists and turns.
Gods And Godmen Of India
by Khushwant Singh
Only Khushwant Singh can write about this loaded topic with complete irreverence and bring out the mundane and the hilarious, ask some serious questions cloaked in satire and get away with it!
*A Handful of Rice
by Kamla Markandya
A beautifully written story about a family struggling for space and survival, and the never ending clash between poverty and morals, set in British India.
False Economy: A Surprising Economic History of the World
by Alan Beattie
The book recounts events and decisions that shaped the economy of nations and regions in the past. The key question is – can the direction of world economy be controlled, or is it just the result of many complex, random events and forces?Does the past have any lessons for us?
The Mathematical Traveler: Exploring The Grand History Of Numbers
by Calvin C. Clawson
This is considered to be a classic book, but somehow I couldn’t connect with it at all. I have read other books that have probably done better justice e.g. The Nothing That Is: A Natural History of Zero by Robert M. Kaplan, Ellen Kaplan. 
Bad Ideas?: An Arresting History of Our Inventions
by Robert Winston
A bit of an anti-climax this one. I was expecting a map of ideas/inventions that were initially rejected or considered to be bad but then over time gained acceptance and changed the course of the world. Nothing of that sort in this book. This is more of an essay on how all inventions in general have a negative side.
*The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems
by Fritjof Capra
Systems and Synthesis, networks, feedback, self organization, diversity, mutation. Complete resonance with my view of the world!
The Story of India
Michael Wood
I am usually quite skeptical about books by non-Indian authors that attempt to recount the story of India. It can be a struggle for someone not exposed to the living culture of India to understand its mythology, separate facts from fiction and connect the dots. But Michael Wood has, in this regard, done a great job. The book is difficult to put down.
East Of The Sun: A Nearly-Stoned Walk Down the Road in a Different Land
by Siddhartha Sarma
I haven’t read many books that are based in the North East of India. I remember being mesmerized by “The Legends of Pensam” by Mamang Dai, a beautiful multi-hued painting of the culture of Arunachal Pradesh. That was an insider’s view. You could call this an outsider’s view, but that of an involved outsider, not the average touristy traveler. It is breezy, humorous, unpretentious but insightful. It has helped me build a mental map of the North East, which I must admit, I didnt have before (knowing all the states and their capitals is not a mental map) – and now I am ready to go deeper and read more.

The Diwali Wise Cracker App

Every Diwali, we have a stand-off between those who get pleasure from bursting fire crackers and those to whom the same causes pain.

The pain argument is as follows – fire crackers cause sound and air pollution, causes discomfort, mainly to children and the elderly, and those who are prone to asthma or other respiratory problems. Fire crackers are also safety hazards especially in closed spaces and a few people invariably end up in hospital with burns – not all of them due to their own carelessness. Also, most fire crackers are made in factories that employ children to work in toxic conditions.

The pleasure argument is as follows: Diwali only comes for 2 days in a year and it is a tradition to burst fire crackers. It is OK to put up with some discomfort in the interest of preserving tradition. And those who care so much about pollution must first eliminate all the other pollution causing activities before targeting something that only happens for 2 days in a year.

Thankfully, technology has evolved over time. So, we do have a neat solution, maybe partial.

We all have mobile phones with headphones. We even have silent discotheques and lounges where people gather together and listen to music on their headphones. The same can be easily adapted to crackers. Lets say we have an app that simulates the sound of bursting fire crackers. Indeed, the app can allow users to create their own crackers. The link can be socially shared, friends can listen to the same cracker live from across the world. There can be an opt-in service that allows you to subscribe to random cracker bursts. Those who like it loud can crank up the volume (in their headphones). Those who love to be intermittently awoken, can opt-in to the same service. They will have to wear their headphones while sleeping but that’s just a small discomfort for the jolts of pleasure to follow. In fact, this can be an all year service. Cracker birthday cards, Cracker alarms, Cracker convocations. The sky is the limit. And completely pollution free!

So, 5 years down the line, it may just be common place for people, to go down to burst their crackers, with just a mobile phone and earphones.

Those who want the pleasure – can have lots of it. Those who don’t want the pain – have the option to opt out. And the technology is available right now.

Of course, you cant please everybody.

This app does nothing for those who actually derive pleasure from the pain caused to others. Hey, look at how the guy jumped! Hey, look at how everybody is covering their ears! Hey, this would have woken the entire building! Yeah, this would need a more complex app with psychological capabilities.

The app also does nothing for those who believe that whatever they have been doing or seeing since birth has been traditionally happening for thousands of years. Expect arguments such as – “Crackers have to be chemical and real – mobile phone simulations are not allowed. Don’t touch tradition! Crackers teach you to accept a little bit of pain and come out of your comfort zones (exactly like ragging)”. Very difficult to please or sway with logic, this crowd.

And, how to we simulate the crackers that create colorful sparks of light? Giant projections? Holograms? Technology is not there yet – at a cost that allows mass adoption. As the BCCI would say, we will not adapt technology till it completely eliminates all the problems.


Industrial pollution. Vehicular pollution. Green house gases. Global warming.

उसके बाद मेरे भाई, तुम जहाँ कहोगे, मैं Sign करने के लिए तैयार हूँ। 

At the end, it has to be simple, for it to really work

I am sure many of you have been in this position before. You realize that all of your time is being consumed in fighting the negatives – delays, complaints, firefighting, demotivated people, unhappy customers. Everyone is working very hard, but all the effort is getting sucked up, with nothing to show for it at the end.You diagnose that this is a process problem. If only we put some basic steps in place, and equip people with the right tools, and train them, everything will fall in place. After all, similar work has already been done before by many other organizations. The steps are known. The tools are available. Its no rocket science.

You get a process expert to help you get started. The consultant brings his frameworks and tool kits with ready-made repositories of templates and check lists based on work done in other organizations. From now on, there will be no chaos – work will neatly flow from one step to the next. Initially, policing will be required – but once people get used to these steps, they will need to be policed less and less . . .

You start seeing some progress. There is some inertia too, some friction. You are forced to create a process police. The process police also double up as internal champions of your cause – they collect data, measure performance, perform analysis and identify improvement areas. They start feeling quite important.

The low hanging fruit are soon gone. The next set of problems are much deeper. The process police are up to the task. They build more complex tools that allow them to make more minute measurements and conduct more detailed analysis. The process steps get more and more intricate. It becomes increasingly difficult to connect them back to real work, see the big picture, understand how the steps help achieve the goals for which the steps were put in place. People are programmed now to tick the process boxes. Yeah, done that. And that too. My job is done.

You wait for the momentum to pick up. Its just a matter of time.

The people are expecting some dividends too. Hey, we are following all your steps, and filling in all your templates and check lists, they say. Where is the moon that you promised us?

Somehow, the momentum is just not picking up.

Your boss starts asking you  now – “How long is it going to take – for me to see some results?”
The people are still asking you – “Where is the moon you promised us?”

You start wondering – what did I do wrong? The processes and tools were all world class. It has to be the people. They did not follow the processes diligently.

You are probably right. But then, as a practitioner of science, you have to ask “Why did they not?”

Ishikawa might have the answer. He encountered this problem more than 3 decades ago.

It is true that statistical methods are effective, but we overemphasized their importance. As a result, people either feared or disliked quality control as something very difficult. We over-educated people by giving them sophisticated methods where, at that stage, simple methods would have sufficed”.

-Ishikawa, What is Total Quality Control, The Japanese Way, 1985

Ishikawa, for those who don’t know or have forgotten is the inventor of the Fish-bone diagram for root cause analysis. Along with Deming, Fischer, Crosby, Feigenbaum, Juran, he is considered one of the key pioneers of the Quality Wave of the 20th century.

So, why did they not? The answer is simple – they did not connect with the initiative – mentally or emotionally. They did not own it. They did not identify with it. They did not participate in it. It didn’t matter how good the templates or checklists were. If the people’s minds were not engaged and open to possibilities while filling them, the documents by themselves were useless. A training session is not sufficient. Processes have to be built into work and have to play a part in making work easier and more enjoyable!

Finding and implementing a workable solution is just half the job done. The solution has to be simplified, so that it can be naturally adapted and used, and makes intuitive sense. Analysis is important – to identify right problems and solutions. But, synthesis is equally important too, to make the solutions work naturally in the context where they apply. And synthesis, which some define as simplicity beyond complexity, is difficult, but exciting!

In today’s world, these problems are considered as “design” problems and the thinking is called “design” thinking. The Japanese were already applying these concepts way back in the 1950s and 1960s. That’s not surprising, since synthesis as a philosophy of life is part of the shared culture of the East, including India and Japan (although in India, we seemed to have worked out that its easier to settle for a simplistic solution to avoid the complexity, which we call “Jugaad”). Observers from the West coined the term “Lean Thinking” for this combination of analytic and design thinking approaches. The word “Lean” however doesn’t quite communicate the essence of what the approach really is. Pity!

There was an empirical study done in the mid 1990s on whether TQM (Total Quality Management) really offers a competitive advantage to its proponents. Here is an excerpt from the conclusions of that study:

Most features generally associated with TQM – such as quality training, process improvement and bench-marking – do not generally produce advantage, but certain tacit, behavioral, imperfectly imitable features – such as open culture, employee empowerment and executive commitment – can produce advantage. These tacit resources, and not TQM tools and techniques, drive TQM success.

– Powell, TQM as Competitive Advantage, Strategic Management Journal Vol. 16, 1995

So, next time when confronted with what looks like a “process problem”, it might be worth running an experiment. With some of the teams, try a more open approach. Decide with the team some basic metrics that everybody can track on a common board somewhere on a daily basis. In those metrics – make sure to include some employee happiness measures too. Put those metrics up every day. And give the team the freedom to come up with their own ways to improve these common metrics.

I have run this experiment  multiple times in the past – it has worked some times, and some times it hasn’t (sometimes people prefer to be led or directed, and are not ready for open and free approaches which require them to lead). I am curious to know if the approach succeeds more often than it fails and is robust enough to work in different contexts – so please do share your experiences with me.

Mumbai – A city waiting for a services revolution

People of Mumbai – fast paced, on the move, no-nonsense (almost to the extent of being rude), always on the lookout for the value-deal, disciplined, resilient, have no clue what it means to be served well.

Yesterday, while traveling from home to office, I took an Air Conditioned BEST bus.  The bus was full at the point where I got in, so I had to make do with a standing slot towards the rear of the bus. Soon, it became apparent that the air conditioning wasn’t working at the rear 50% of the bus. Passengers, having paid for air conditioned comfort (the fare is 3 times the regular fare), were sweating it out. In fact, since the AC buses have no windows, it was worse than a regular bus. Some of us in the rear complained to the conductor. He had a simple answer – “Air conditioning is not working in the rear of the bus. If you want, you can come and stand up front.” Practical advice, except for a small glitch – the bus was already full, so there was no space in the front of the bus, even to stand. We asked him to stand with us at the rear and at least give us some moral company. Or  refund 2/3 of the ticket price that is charged for the AC. He ignored us. Most of the passengers were office goers – and the non-aggressive type. We just chose to grin and bear it. Just put up with it for a day. Who has the time and energy to demand basic levels of service. Who has the time to complain and follow-up, formally with the establishment.

It would have been easier to rough up the conductor, and give vent to frustration that way. But, we were all so civil and domesticated, and immune to bad service due to years of grinning and bearing it, we don’t get sufficiently angry even to exhort our muscles to action. Proverbial frogs in boiling water.

Ideally, the conductor should have apologized for deficiency in service. He should have himself offered a prompt refund. I cant imagine, for example, a hotel, where the customer is asked to go and stand in the corner where the air conditioning works, as if it were the most normal thing in the world.

While traveling back home from office, I got into a BEST bus at Thane station. It was late evening around 9.30 PM and not too many people at the “starting point”, so there was a seat available for everyone. The weather was good, it was drizzling persistently, and when the bus started to move, there was a pleasant, light spray of rain to freshen the tired faces looking out of the windows.

And then the little fight started. The passenger behind me had given the conductor a 100 rupee note to purchase a ticket (worth Rs. 20). The conductor had given Rs. 80 as change including a Rs. 50 note in fairly bad condition. The passenger returned the Rs. 50 note, asking for a replacement.

Something snapped inside the conductor’s head. He started yelling at the passenger. “What do you mean by this note is not good. I am saying that this note is good, so you have to take it!”. The passenger refused. The conductor pulled the chain to stop the bus (in Mumbai BEST buses, you have this overhead rope attached to a bell, which the conductor pulls to signal to the driver to stop or start the bus – one of those wonderful things about Mumbai that you wish would never become extinct). He asked the passenger to get out of the bus if he was unhappy with the Rs. 50 note. The passenger refused to budge. 2 minutes of ugly chit chat.

Meanwhile, other passengers were getting impatient – some of them tried to convince the passenger to let go and end the stalemate. I was guilty too, of another offense – just keeping quiet and not supporting my co-passenger and taking a stand against the bullying tactics of the conductor. The morning incident probably played a role – it was just futile to try to change the system or expect the system to change.

Finally, the passenger had to relent. He pulled out Rs. 20 from his wallet and asked the conductor to give back the 100 rupee note. The conductor asked him to give the 20 rupee note first. The passenger asked him to give the 100 rupee note first. Another 2 minute “Chicken’s Dilemma” exchange of words. Eventually, again, it was the passenger who had to relent. He gave the 20 rupee note. The conductor made him wait for his 100 rupee note, before handing it over. And then, to rub it in, for the next 10 minutes (till the bus filled up), as he walked up and down the aisle, he showed the Rs. 50 note to each person, asking for his opinion on whether it was good or not. People nodded their heads – anything to keep the man in good humor and keep the bus running. At every nod, the conductor loudly proclaimed his victory – “See, I was right all along!”. He was the top dog in the bus. How dare anybody question him?

It was an innocuous issue. One would expect the conductor to politely inform the customer that if the Rs. 50 note was not to his liking, he would have to be kind enough to provide exact change for his ticket. Or he would have to wait for some time. I just cant imagine a restaurant where a waiter can ask a customer to leave the restaurant if the table is not to his liking (if the customer has asked for a different table). Nor can I imagine the waiter walking across to each table, bitching about “the customer at that table” who asked for a different table because a corner of the table was cracked. And customers, nodding their heads, so that he can get on with his job and get them their food.

For a services company, to offer this kind of customer service and to get away with it, can mean only one thing. It has to be a monopoly.

And if so, there is a great opportunity for a private bus service in Mumbai. Come to think of it, there is a great opportunity for all kinds of services in Mumbai, for the same reason. A smile, some manners, some empathy towards customers, a little attention to customer experience – anybody who offers these, will get a lot of blessings and loyal customers in Mumbai!

Book Review: The Lost River – On the Trail of the Saraswati

Finally, a book that consolidates multiple views on the Indus-Saraswati civilization and provides a hypothesis that people on the subcontinent can easily vouch for as realistic and highly probable.

Not many people know yet about the reality of river Saraswati, the dry river basin clearly visible through satellite imaging, the location of the river clearly and correctly mentioned in the RgVeda along with its six sisters, 70% of sites found in the Saraswati basin (so the name Indus Valley Civilization needs to be changed too), how the once mighty river that flowed from the Shivaliks to the Kutch sea lost portions of its waters to the Yamuna and the Sutlej and how its drying up over a period of time (rainfull pattern shifting eastward) is likely to have resulted in the shift of population towards the Indus and the Gangetic plains (there is actual evidence to support this hypothesis).

One major point that emerges clearly is that the Indus-Saraswati Civilization existed when Saraswati was flowing. That pushes the dates back by several thousand years. That’s just about the last nail in the coffin for Muller’s Aryan invasion theory.

The book also throws light on how the artifacts of the civilization live on (the people and their customs and practices did not disappear or go extinct or get exterminated, but formed the basis of the evolution of Indian culture as we know today).

Some questions do remain unanswered – how do we connect this with some key Hindu mythological references, be it the Ramayana or the Puranas, the shared pre-Vedic past of India and Iran and the two paths that emerged? Of course, this question may be out of the scope of this book which focuses on the River Saraswati.

All in all, a brilliant read and its time to update the school syllabus on Indus Valley Civilization. A lot of water has flown past Harappa and Mohenjo-daro and all the action is on the banks of the river Saraswati.

Sarasvati River –

Switching from Waterfall to Agile can be difficult

Looking to switch from Waterfall to Agile? Thinking through the following may help.
Everybody seems to start with the assumption that Agile means less work. Developers look forward to less (that was just diplomatic for “no”) documentation. Managers imagine a world without spreadsheets and Gantt charts. Even customers expect a lot more to be done lot quicker. All the irritating stuff out. Only the pleasant stuff in. When realization dawns that iterating is hard work as well (if anything, harder), the fairy tale is shattered. Not everybody makes it across. Agile is reduced to a buzzword, just an attractive veneer for what is internally just ad-hoc. 

Let everybody know up-front that Agile does not mean less work – just different type of structured work!

The best people may no longer be the best. Their competence gets in the way. Those who are used to working everything out in detail in advance have to accept imperfection. Those who are used to being in control and “on top of things” throughout have to deal with uncertainty. This can be extremely disconcerting, because some deeply entrenched habits have to be changed. I know how big this problem is – having struggled with it for a long time myself when I was a developer. Most people are unable to change, or don’t want to change. They need support and guidance to make this mental switch. They also need the license to fail early while learning a new way of working. Unfortunately, both of these are usually in short supply. We end up taking the easy way out – just change the jargon without any significant change in the way we approach our work. Not surprisingly the results are not very different either. 

Help people rewire their brains to accept imperfection and uncertainty and be willing to iterate!

Agile may not necessarily be the best model for the context. Yes, the context should determine the approach, why is this so surprising to hear? And yet, so often, the switch to Agile is decided not by the work context (say a new project with a new set of requirements that the team has never worked on) but by the marketing context or buzz factor (Oh! Why aren’t you doing Agile yet?). The presumption is that Agile is somehow the natural way forward from Waterfall, for any context. It is not seen, as it rightly should, as just another skill that a software organization has in its armory, to bring into play depending on the context.

Understand the context first and choose Agile if it is most suitable for that context.

The different democracies of individuals and groups

I have started travelling by Mumbai local trains again after more than a decade. Nothing much has changed since then. The trains and stations are much more crowded, yes. But the new generation of travelers looks and behaves pretty much like the old generation. I had hoped that there would be improvements. The only good change is that most people are busy with their mobile phones.Last month in a particularly crowded train, I got in to a compartment where a group of middle aged businessmen had set up residence. Conversing at the top of their voices, they had made an already uncomfortable journey even more uncomfortable for their fellow travelers. It is not that they were oblivious of the discomfort being caused. The people most inconvenienced standing near to them were making their displeasure obvious and a few individuals even asked them to tone it down. But these guys were in a large group, and retorted back – its a democracy, and if you don’t like it, just cover your ears, or something to that effect. Obviously, they had their own view of what democracy means, and very simply put, it equates to “Majority Wins!”

I had a similar experience at a domestic airport a few years back. There was a big group of people traveling on the same flight. They were also seemingly oblivious to their fellow travelers (outside their group). The chaos was mind-blowing. There was a group leader in a couple of boarding queues to manage the group, negotiate extra luggage, get the best seats, stall for time if some members were yet to arrive, shuffle people across queues etc. It was frustrating to stand in a queue for half an hour and then find out that the guy two places ahead of you is a place holder for 7 or 8 families to check-in. Why not get everybody to stand in the queue so that others could take an informed decision on which queue to stand in? The fun didn’t end at boarding. The in-flight cacophony was mind blowing as well. Getting into the plane. Getting into your seat. Finding space for hand luggage. Getting something to eat. Everything was a chore. Well, what can you say? I guess the individuals outside the group should consider themselves lucky that they were allowed to get into the flight and make the journey. It would take a courageous individual to protest. After all, “Majority Wins!”

The worrying part is that these groups truly believed that there was nothing wrong in what they were doing. The groups consisted of educated and successful people – those whose needs in life were taken care of. And yet, they had nothing telling them that other individuals’ reasonable rights and comfort were not to be trampled by the group’s size-derived power.

One has to wonder what we all think democracy means. The basic premise of a democracy is that every individual is important. Every individual has the right to be heard and to cast a vote based on his individual opinion. In a democracy, the majority does not trample or coerce the rights of individuals. Democracy cannot be reduced to mere mobocracy. I shudder to think of the implications of a society where no one remembers or understands why it is so important for the rights of every individual be respected and protected.

Of course, more than a democracy, it is our social values that are at question here. We in India, pride ourselves that we are culturally very tolerant and democratic. And yet, these very traits seem to be absent in our regular daily social behavior.

Of course, we are a complex country and people, and we can simultaneously be ultra-caring, hospitable and empathetic to strangers in certain specific situations e.g. if there is a crisis. I just hope that the later tendency is not irreversibly overpowered. We will all end up on the losing side. There can always be a bigger group. But the best societies are those where even individuals are big, not small.