Friday, April 24, 2009

Learning and prepared mind: approaches of Gary Hamel and Ramana Maharshi

Gary Hamel is one of the most influential management thinkers of our times. Personally, I find his work on core competence and innovation markets insightful and useful. Hence, when I read his following remarks from an interview with McKinsey, I was surprised:

For almost 20 years I’ve tried to help large companies innovate. And despite a lot of successes along the way, I’ve often felt as if I were trying to teach a dog to walk on his hind legs. Sure, if you get the right people in the room, create the right incentives, and eliminate the distractions, you can spur a lot of innovation. But the moment you turn your back, the dog is on its fours again because it has quadruped DNA, not biped DNA.

I am not surprised that most large organizations don’t have innovation DNA. What I am surprised of is to see that Gary attempted to change DNA of so many organizations. I don’t doubt Gary’s genuine intent to help. However, I feel that we need to give more importance to “preparedness of mind” in the learning process. Let’s contrast this with Ramana Maharshi’s approach.

Here is an excerpt from the visit of a nirvana seeker U. G. Krishnamurti to Ramana’s ashram in Thiruvannamalai. U. G. recalls:

That man [Ramana] was sitting there. From his very presence I felt "What! This man -- how can he help me? This fellow who is reading comic strips, cutting vegetables, playing with this, that or the other -- how can this man help me? He can't help me." Anyway, I sat there. Nothing happened; I looked at him, and he looked at me. [snip] I have been sitting here for two hours, and the questions are still there. All right, let me ask him some questions" -- because at that time I very much wanted moksha. "Can you give me what you have?" – I asked him this question, but that man didn't answer, so after some lapse of time I repeated that question -- "I am asking 'Whatever you have, can you give it to me?” He said, "I can give you, but can you take it?" Boy! For the first time this fellow says that he has something and that I can't take it. Nobody before had said "I can give you," but this man said "I can give you, but can you take it?"

UG got hurt by this remark and walked away. Perhaps it caused him to think about his own preparedness (or lack of) to learn. Ramana mostly communicated through silence and believed that a “prepared mind” ignites when it comes in contact with “wisdom”.

My take-away: Changing DNA is a noble social cause, not a good business model and it helps to pay attention to “preparedness of the mind”. The last thing I want to do is to get into a business of changing DNA.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

What is your personal brand?

Have you tried following exercise? Starting with your own name, try Googling various phrases and find out those phrases which show up your name or articles in the first page of results. Last week I spent some time doing this exercise and I found following phrases: “what is technical leadership”, “types of technical leaders”, “technical leadership ecosystem”, “technology captives”, “prototyping competency”, “black swan innovation”. When I mentioned this to my wife, her immediate reaction was, “You are jobless!” Agreed. When you are self-employed and have a home-office, there is a thin line between “working” and “being jobless”. Then I asked her to type her name in Google. For the next half-an hour she was engrossed finding out more about herself and her namesakes from Internet. Whether you like it or not personal brand matters.

During my workshop on technical leadership, we have a session where each participant reflects for some time and then writes what she believes is an apt representation of her personal brand. Here are a few samples from the last workshop.

Then I point to each card and ask, “If you are walking by this board where these cards are pinned and you see this card, will you remember it if you have a problem pertaining to this expertise?” It is a moment-of-truth for many. For example it does not take an expert to see that “X-ray image detection and processing” is much sharper than “Computer science theory and application” or “Walk with us!”

In case you are serious about personal branding, check out 3-step process given by Jan Marie Dore: Three Keys to Developing a Personal Brand. The steps are: (1) Identifying a clear, unique strength, talent or expertise (2) Identifying a message that communicates that uniqueness (3) Persistently communicating the message through various channels. You may also want to check out my earlier article: Winning the boxing game: Art of personal branding.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Adsense story take-2: Role of environment and innovation process

I wrote last year about how Google’s AdSense almost got killed. Paul Buchheit, who created the first AdSense prototype has written a nice article himself about how he prefers Communicating with code. If you are interested in prototyping or innovation, I say it is a must read.

This is what I found interesting in the article about AdSense innovation:

1. Idea was in the air: Paul says, “The idea of targeting keyword based ads to arbitrary content on the web had been floating around the company for a long time". It was “obvious”. And apparently, “We needed a way for Gmail to make money, and Sanjeev Singh talking about using relevant ads”. I call these “floating pregnant idea clouds”. See do ideas float in the air?

2. Idea was “obviously bad”: "Most people believed that it would require some kind of fancy artificial intelligence to understand the content well enough to target ads, and even if we had that, nobody would click on the ads." What is even more interesting is that even Paul “thought that they were probably right”.

3. It might be a fun experiment: “I remained skeptical but thought it might be a fun experiment [snip] The code was rather ugly and hackish, but more importantly, it only took a few hours write!

4. First response wasn’t positive: I released the feature on our unsuspecting userbase of about 100 Googlers, and then went to sleep. The response when I returned the next day was not what I would classify as “positive”. Someone may have used the word “blasphemous”.

5. Project priority changes from lowest to high: I wasn’t the only one who found the ads surprisingly relevant. Suddenly, content targeted ads switched from being a lowest-priority (unstaffed, will not do) to being a top priority project, and an extremely talented team was formed to build the project and within may be six months a live beta was launched.

Kudos to Paul who went ahead with a fun experiment for an idea which was considered “obviously bad” and had “lowest priority”. However, what I find equally interesting is the role of environment (or culture) in the whole process. For example, step-1 tells us that there was an environment where ideas float around. Step-2 tells us about transparency in judging ideas i.e. people knew why it was considered “obviously bad”. People didn’t say “Management considers it a bad idea”. Step-3 shows us (a) anyone can work on ideas which are low priority and (b) anyone can experiment with codebase without having to take permissions and then release it for testing. I find step-5 to be one of the most important as far as innovation process is concerned because it shows the speed with which an idea with “lowest priority” was re-evaluated after the response from Paul’s prototype release and assigned “extremely talented team”.
Reminds me of Internal Innovation Bazaar of Gary Hamel.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

IBM-Bharti IT outsourcing deal and Louis Gerstner’s “full-body immersion” vision

Historic deal: Bharti outsourced its entire IT to IBM in 2004 in a historic end-to-end IT infrastructure transformation deal worth $750-million over 10 years. Today, at the half-way tenure mark (five-years), the deal has touched $2.5 billion. This isn’t surprising considering Bharti had about 10 million mobile subscribers in 2004 while today Bharti’s subscriber base has reached 94 million (growing at a rate of 3 million per month) and the business model involves revenue sharing. Riding on the success of this deal, IBM also signed similar contracts with Vodafone, Idea Cellular and Malaysia’s Maxis. Why does a company like Bharti outsource a critical function like IT? And what did it mean to IBM to prepare for such a deal? Let’s look at these questions below.

Bharti view: Following dialogue at IBM innovation site gives a glimpse into the minds of Bharti Chairman Sunil Mittal (SM), Corporate Director of IT for Bharti Dr. Jai Menon (JM) and Joint MD Akhil Gupta (AG):

SM: We are growing at near enough 100 percent a year. And we will be a 25 million customer company in the next couple of years. And we believe that we need to manage this growth and that's the biggest challenge in front of us.

JM: That leads to us really requiring a partner who has a very grand vision on where communications and computing is headed, and who can help us implement the right kind of technologies for the right kind of services to our customers.

JM: So we needed somebody who came to us not just for cost reduction or giving us a component technology, but somebody who understood our business, understood what the business processes could change into, and come along with us and be very flexible and adaptive in terms of what needs to be delivered to take us to where we need to go to.

AG: I think the only big vendor or partner I could look for all across, including with Wipro and Infosys (I have a great respect for them) was IBM.

IBM’s bet: How does this view of IBM compare to the vision Louis Gerstner (then CEO of IBM) had for the services business in 90s? Let’s look at following excerpt from his book “Who says elephants can’t dance?

Think for a moment about just the outsourcing business. What you are telling the customer is: “Transfer your IT assets—products, facilities plus the staff – onto my books. I’ll absorb it all, manage it, guarantee performance levels, and promise that you’ll always be on or close to leading edge of the technology. All that AND I’ll charge you less than it is costing you now.”

At the same time, you are telling yourself: “I can do all that and still make a profit”. It meant betting on following (1) Willingness to use your balance sheet. There is no such a thing as a toe in the water. When you take this plunge, it’s full-body immersion. (2) It’s a bet on your ability to drive economies of scale – to consolidate lots of data centers into megaplexes or the ability to do with 750 people what two or three customers once did with 1000. (3) It means we could build recruitment, training, compensation and HR processes. And finally (4) we had to learn how to be disciplined – how to negotiate profitable contracts, price our skills, assess risk, and walk away from bad contracts.

I would this deal to be a role model for level-5 in PMM.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Game of shorting: Is it really easier to figure out losers?

Having been rejected a bailout, GM might file for bankruptcy. Was it easy to predict such an outcome 10 years ago? I feel we might have folks who will argue either way. Buffett made following observation on the auto industry in his 1999 talk at Sun Valley, Idaho (source: The Snowball by Alice Shroeder):

There were two thousand auto companies: the most important invention, probably, of the first half of the twentieth century. It had an enormous impact on people’s lives. If you had seen at the time of the first cars how this country would develop in connection with autos, you would have said, “This is the place I must be”. But of the two thousand companies, as of a few years ago, only three car companies survived. And, at one time or another, all three were selling for less than book value, which is the amount of money that had been put into the companies and left there. So auto companies had an enormous impact on America, but in the opposite direction on investors.

Now, sometimes it’s much easier to figure out the losers. And of course, the thing you should have been doing was shorting horses.
Buffett showed following slide:

1900 – 17 million
1998 – 5 million

And said, "Frankly, I am kind of disappointed that the Buffett family was not shorting horses throughout this entire period. There are always losers."

During my undergraduate curriculum of computer science and engineering, I used 6 programming languages: Fortran, Cobol, Pascal, C, Lisp and C++. Depending upon whom you talked to, you would have received a different response as to which language might be the winner. However, there was a consensus on which language is going to be the loser. It was: Cobol. Looking at the scenario two decades later, if we see return on investment on the technology, Cobol might very well be the winner.

So, is it really easy to predict the losers? The keyword in Buffett’s statement “sometimes it’s much easier to figure out the losers” is, I feel, “Sometimes”. And there lies the catch. Exactly when is it easier to identify losers? Would the answer lie in understanding a type of business moat called “switching cost”? Perhaps. But, for now, I would prefer to stay with the question.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Partnership Maturity Model (PMM): A tool for setting strategic direction for technology captives or offshore development centers (ODC)

Partnership Maturity Model (PMM) was presented by Dr. Bob Hoekstra, then CEO of Philips Innovation Center in 2004. One can see the influence of the prevalent model CMM on the number of levels (5) and the nomenclature (PMM vs CMM). Nevertheless, I feel it is a useful tool in setting strategic direction for technology captives and ODC centers part of IT services firms. We used the PMM in our research on technology captives in India.

My view on the differentiating competency at each level is:

Level-1 (Resource center): Make resources with basic competencies (such as programming, testing in specific technology platforms .Net, Java, Mainframe)
Level-2 (Offshore Development Center): Manage a project independently and deliver on time, with quality and on budget for a given specification.
Level-3 (Center of Excellence): Influence technology / product roadmap
Level-4 (Innovation Center): Own technology / product roadmap
Level-5 (Highly Valued Partner): Form strategic business partnership and become a key player in partner’s market leadership

Anyone familiar with Indian IT industry would be able to relate to the first two levels of PMM. The real challenge lies in maturing at level-3. My friend Ramprasad who is the MD of BridgeCo India has used PMM to set vision for his center. While articulating a key challenge influencing roadmap (level-3), RamP says, “The market (Internet Radio) is in the developed world. If we have to influence and then own roadmaps, we need to figure out a way to remain on top of the market dynamics, sitting in Bangalore”.

During our research we observed that RamP’s challenge is not unique. In fact, we observed that there is a chasm at level-3 as shown in the figure below. By adopting newer approaches of managing efficiency like CMMI, Six sigma, SCRUM, firms are not getting any better at creating value. I also used Niagara Falls metaphor to explain the cost-value chasm here.

I have seen captives or ODCs taking following approaches to mature at level-3 or crossing cost-value chasm:
  1. Own a framework / platform roadmap: This is perhaps the easiest of the three approaches. Many IDCs have substantial ownership of (mostly software) frameworks / platforms including test automation frameworks. Customers for these platforms are product teams (mostly internal). The centers can influence / own roadmaps of these frameworks. As I work with different clients, I see this either happening already or firms taking steps towards this direction.
  2. Partner with BPO: What started as a different kind of business (call-center) has suddenly become a critical asset in gaining deep insights about the customer. Technology center in partnership with BPO can identify opportunities & propose solutions to create substantial customer value. For example, Progeon (BPO) was started as a subsidiary company of Infosys in 2002 with $20 funding from Citicorp. Infosys brought Progeon into its fold by buying Citicorp’s 23% stake in 2006. In 2008, Infosys introduced platform based BPO solution for procure-to-pay services as part of a systematic effort to create non-linearity in its business model.
  3. Start with local market: A few India centers like GE Healthcare and Adobe are contributing to creating products specific to India market. For example, GE Healthcare is creating an R&D lab with a simulated hospital work environment and aims to double India revenue in next 3 to 5 years. In case of Adobe, Naresh Gupta MD of Adobe India also holds Adobe’s print and publishing portfolio. e.g. see (or listen to) Naresh’s interview on globalization and emerging markets published in May 2008.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

4 types of technical leaders: a structural view

In the previous article we looked at 4 types of technical leaders from a functional or responsibility perspective. Many times I am asked whether technical leader should be an individual contributor. In fact, many organizations have “individual contributor” as an essential attribute for people on the tech-ladder. Let’s look at 4 representative technologists (Technical Fellow) from Microsoft and how their roles are structurally different. I have made some assumptions based on their profiles available at “Microsoft Big Brains”. It is possible that some of the assumptions could be incorrect. However, I have across technical leaders performing all these types of roles.

  1. Individual contributor – part of multiple internal teams: Patrick Dussud is instrumental in developing language runtime architectures for Visual Basic for Applications (VBA), VBscript, Jscript, Microsoft Java and the .Net CLR. He also has designed all of the garbage collectors Microsoft has shipped as part of its dev tools. Dussud prefers working as part of multiple teams, rather than managing people. This is equivalent to being treated as a part-time team member by multiple teams.
  2. Individual contributor – part of multiple internal and external teams: Chuck Thacker is an individual contributor in Microsoft Research Silicon Valley Lab. Chuck is currently focused on helping build field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs), which are semiconductors that can be custom-configured after they’re manufactured. Thacker is teaming with other industry and academic researchers on the Research Accelerator for Multiple Processors (RAMP) consortium. One of Thacker’s pet project’s, the BEE3 (Berkeley Emulation Engine version 3) — a four-FPGA system that is used for computer architecture research and is a target for RAMP — is starting to be licensed to academics and businesses so they can prototype all kinds of hardware platforms more cheaply. He also works with Windows and Xbox teams.
  3. Manager of a large team: Brian Harry is a Technical Fellow and also a Product Unit Manager running a 120-strong unit focused on Team Foundation Server. Brian has played a major role in getting the .Net Framework effort started. I am assuming Gary Flake who is the Director of Live Labs also manages a large team as he says the lab has 40 active projects with some teams being as large as 20 people.
  4. Manager of a small team: John Shewchuk currently leads the Connected Systems Division technical strategy and architecture teams for .Net Services and other Azure services components (Note: My assumption is that a strategy and architecture team may have at max a few tens of people and not hundreds).
This shows that technical leaders work under different kind of structures.

4 types of technical leaders: a functional view

In this article we look at 4 types of functional roles technical leaders play. These are: (1) Business and technology strategist (epitomized by Bill Gates) (2) Technology strategist (Amazon’s CTO Werner Vogels) (3) Scientist (Sun Fellow and father of Java, James Gosling) and (4) Infrastructure manager (Proctor & Gamble, CIO, Filippo Passerini). We describe each of them briefly:

1. Business and technology strategist (Bill Gates): Bill Gates demonstrated an uncanny ability to device a business strategy and a technology strategy for winning the PC software game. He had deep product understanding especially the core products. And he played a crucial role in forming strategic partnerships like Intel. Bill used to take week off twice a year (called “Think Week”) and go into seclusion to ponder over Microsoft strategy, read hundred odd papers and write memos to team on strategic direction. This isn’t the most commonly found role in large organizations. Typically you will have a separate person taking care of business strategy and technology. However, it is a typical role in technology start-ups.

2. Technology strategist (Werner Vogels, CTO, Amazon): Vogels has helped Amazon grow from an online retailer (albeit one of the largest, with more than 55 million active customer accounts) into a platform on which more than 1 million active retail partners worldwide do business. Werner says, “Growth is core to's business strategy, and that has had a significant impact on the way we use technology. A large part of's technology evolution has been driven to enable this continuing growth, to be ultra-scalable while maintaining availability and performance.” For a technology strategist to succeed, he needs to partner with a business strategist. I am assuming, at Amazon, Jeff Bezos and Werner Vogels form a good partnership. Another such successful partnership that comes to mind is between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of Apple during Apple-I and Apple-II days.

3. Scientist (James Gosling, VP and Sun Fellow): James did the original design of the Java programming language and implemented its original compiler and virtual machine. He has recently been a contributor to the Real-Time Specification for Java. He is currently a researcher at Sun labs where his primary interest is software development tools. While James has built a technology (Java) that has had a significant impact on the technology world, it hasn’t helped Sun create a competitive position. This is where scientist role differs from the previous two strategist roles. Both roles are essential. However, in a for-profit world, only large and profitable corporations can afford scientist roles.

4. Infrastructure manager (Filippo Passerini, CIO, Proctor & Gamble): For an FMCG company like P&G core, technology would involve areas such as chemicals, fabric, biotechnology, healthcare. However, you still need someone who enables smooth information flow within the organization and with customers and partners by making right technology choices and deploying them. For example, collaboration is Passerini’s particular passion. That's reflected in his latest project: rolling out 48 of Cisco Systems' super-high-end Telepresence teleconferencing systems over the next nine months. Passerini says this is the most aggressive use of the technology to date and serves as "an example of how to bring collaboration to the next level."

Note that these roles are applicable in a business unit context as well. See a related view on this topic: Role of the CTO – Four models of success by Tom Berray and Raj Sampath.