Musing #36: The Next Big Thing

I just started reading 'The One Device' the other day and have made it past the first couple of chapters wherein the book briefly touches over Apple's transition to innovation after its lost years. Of course, this is not the first time I have come across the story as the Steve Jobs' biography covers it in much greater detail. However, the underlying message to take away is that well-executed ideas can make a huge difference to the fortunes of a company, even though the innovation may be more evolutionary than revolutionary.

Although the situation is far from similar, reading this phase of Apple's history makes me ponder over the flux the Indian IT industry finds itself in now. If anything, the requirement for innovation in the industry has been expedited. However, what comes around in the public domain sounds more like Orwellian Newspeak. The mention of AI, Automation, Cloud, Digital, Agile in the broadest of terms seems to have little more intention than to placate the shareholders. After all, shareholders in India seem to be a particularly emotional bunch going by the swings that take place after an obvious piece of news is shared by the media. This has necessitated the use of these terms along with others like Big Data, DevOps which have been in circulation for a pretty long time, enough for them to not be considered as part of a novel strategy. Yet, it forms the basis of optimism for a huge industry and its employees.

Ideas need execution to be successful. The basic tenet of the Indian IT industry has been cost arbitrage and providing services for cheap. Unfortunately, the same strategy seems to be permeating itself in the “new” fields. Hence, when the industry speaks of AI, it isn't referring to top of the line machine and deep learning. Instead it alludes to automation of basic operational tasks based on limited algorithmic branching. Even the innovation that does occur in this space is not happening here in India but through talent hired abroad with the usual instruction based implementation being passed on to cheaper coders in India. Similarly, the digital revolution through products and platforms is based on imitating the functionalities of well-established software at a fraction of the price. It is thus a case of simply picking the low hanging fruit.

Establishing any roadmap is based on industry trends and a fair bit of optimism. One certainly must move along with emerging technologies but the success of any buzzword isn't guaranteed. Case in point is that of Virtual Reality. Not until a few years ago, it was seen as the next big thing. Cost has always been attributed as a key factor in the uptake of VR. However, that isn't the case for something like Google Cardboard. It certainly offers a basic experience but at the same time illustrates the fallibility of VR. Beyond the initial novelty of the experience, it becomes very difficult to get people to come back again. One can only take so many rollercoaster rides, scenic walks and museum visits in isolation. Gaming and interactive story telling might be expected to alleviate this but VR has become part of a vicious circle wherein it has been unable to attain critical mass which has in turn kept content creators from investing too much in it. The VR industry is taking recourse by cutting hardware prices for high-end headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive but unfortunately it seems destined to be niche. As has been the case in the past, mobiles will have to lead the way. However, it seems inevitable that AR experiences as those that will be provided by Apple's ARKit will be the mainstream option for once again it is just a case of incremental innovation.

This brings me back to the Apple and iPhone story. All the pieces of the puzzle were long in existence but none of them were put together in the manner which made the iPhone seem like magic. The next big thing might will not be a revolution but a simple evolution that seems like magic. Being ahead of time is as much as a failure as being late to the party. What one needs is a bridge between the present and the past such that people find the journey to the future much more exciting than the destination itself.

Musing #3: Generating value from within. Taking notice and getting noticed.

One’s company, two’s crowd and anything more is a company of crowd. So how do you not become a face in the crowd? How do you appear as appealing as a luxury product exhibited at a shop window? I cannot profess to know the answer and hence what follows as a matter of opinion and not judgement, bequeathing itself from my limited world view and experience.

When starting out, one looks at opportunities that present themselves with resolve and innocence; innocence that can be leveraged for the greater good. Hope and assurances can drive ambitions but they can also be effective tools of manipulating an illusion. However, a professional exists to complete the tasks on hand, and to do them well.

So what does all the effort add up to? It culminates with the race to attain a higher number or a lower alphabet; both of which are good incentives at a personal level, but perhaps not a full proof gauge of talent and ability. It treats performance as a zero sum game with one's benefit coming at the expense of another. Nor can it be worn as a noticeable badge of pride when the time comes to exhibit yourself. Bands provide a modicum of monetary bliss (or woe), but it would be juvenile to not acknowledge that are influenced by factors other than work performance. It begets the need for a system that measures talent and ability as objectively as possible, which is seldom the case with human judgement.

Beyond this, the ability and talent can be reflected by the glowing recommendations from supervisors. But these are worthwhile only as far as the word goes; which in all but none cases extends to the person who is likely to notice, evaluate and select you. It must be a difficult job to make aspirations meet with opportunities but that does not imply fitting a square peg in a round hole. Resumes are spiked like a sportsperson’s dope to make it read like a sales pamphlet, under the aegis of “doing what everybody does”. Honesty and integrity are virtues that are emphasised up on but seldom reflect themselves on the document that matters the most. The candid ones are the most irrelevant and fall by the wayside even before an opportunity arises.

This is of course an allegory to my own predicament as I sit on the crossroads of uncertainty. It is a disheartening and abject situation. The process of change within the organisation to meet one’s aspirations seems to be an onerous one; an observation which is undoubtedly opinionated, but not entirely untrue in fact.

It is naïve to state a problem without pondering over a solution. However, it is as simple as knowing more about the employees by measuring better. To quote Lord Kelvin, “To measure is to know” and knowledge is power. The more you know about the potential, aspirations of an employee and see them meet challenges, the better it is for the organisation and the individual. Value for external customers can be generated when one starts with generating value for the internal customers.

Opinions change with time, remarkably so at the time of appraisals. Hence, there is a need to judge a person by ongoing actions, tasks, learning and with solutions, assistance afforded. The need is to constantly engage and measure the employee performance instead of leaving it to subjective judgements at the end of a time period. The devil is in the details and the need is to capture all the productive aspects of an associate and use that as an unbiased measurement of the performance.

The true value of a task is based on extent of utility to all stakeholders and not on how many points get ticked off a check-list. As the old adage goes, smart (quality) work needs to be acknowledged more than hard (clocking the hours) work. Active engagement and analysis is required now, more than ever, to dispel the essence of dispensability and devaluation that seems all too evident by an increasing employee count. Impactful changes of even the smallest magnitude shouldn’t be lost like a needle in a hay stack, but should instead be acknowledged and nurtured. The bottom of a pyramid matters as much as the top. Capture all the productive aspects of an employee to find value at every level and foster healthy competition within teams. Take notice and get noticed. Better resource visibility and value within the organisation may just be obtained by going BIG and gaming IT.
A professional introspection conducted a couple of years ago.

Musing #2: Computing by 2062

Ever since Charles Babbage set the proverbial cog in the machine in motion, the juggernaut of computing has steam rolled over the human imagination. One may view a point in time as the launch pad of colossal advancement or the precipice of destruction. History is a great teacher but that would seldom hold true for computing where a spark can ignite an explosion of technological advancement leaving behind well accepted beliefs.

Peering into the next half century of computing is therefore in essence a leap of faith. However, there are lessons learnt over the past half century which lend a view of the path towards the future, though not the destination itself. One irrefutable observation that comes out of it is that computing has become immensely personal over the years to the point where the difference between the human and the machine is only skin deep. The future thus entails that the touch of the skin should no longer be a barrier.

There is no denying the fact that computing has been modelled in part on the human anatomy because humans visualise machines as such. Thus, it is apt that the future of computer processing should involve the amalgamation of an organic mind with an inorganic one. In the future, a synaptic transmission would not be limited to the human mind but would extend to a computer capable of augmenting the human mind. Processing of functions beyond the physical realm would thus be passed on to a more capable mind networked to numerous others dissipating the most pertinent real time information for the human mind to act upon. Information can be visualised without the need for a display device, to the extent that it is meant for one's eyes only. Silicon computing of today would seem quaint in comparison to quantum and probabilistic computing of the future.

Networking begets a means to transmit information and undeniably the future is wireless. Light has proven itself to be the fastest and efficient means of transmission as the fibre optic cables of today would testify. However, future transmissions would have to done wirelessly using the power of photons. Networking would have to instantaneous and lossless to accommodate the flawless transmission of heileybytes of data. Monstrous computations would literally require a new dimension in storage. The future of storage would be in 3-D, be it in the form of DNA or holographic storage.

The mention of wireless brings into focus another one of today's limitation; the need to be constantly wired up to a power source. Necessity would demand that computing should be omnipresent and with necessity being the mother of invention, battery packs of yore would be resigned to history books. While seeds have already been sown in the form of resonant magnetic induction, contactless energy transfer through electromagnetic waves would lead the way in 2062.

It is certainly hard to think of computing as isolated silos in the future and the growing influence of cloud computing indicates that history would repeat itself with centralised computing being once again the way forward. It isn't hard to think of computing as a utility, much like water and electricity today. The all-important question of privacy will easily be addressed with the mind hooked up to the grid all the time. The signature of the mind will certainly be more unique than DNA forensics of today.

Coming to the software aspect of computing, it would be untenable to have multiple platforms working discordantly to achieve the same task. To that end, the operating systems of the future wouldn't be any more than an interface towards accessing the computing hardware. A glimpse of this is already visible in the browsers of today which are able to execute tasks across platforms using JavaScript and HTML5. In this day and age, with the browser becoming the window to the world, it is quite predictable that the future wouldn't be too different.

A key aspect to computing is programming. While it remains a specialised task today, the continual simplification of computing demands that it shouldn't be the case in the future. Gone will be the need to follow syntax with semantics leading the way. Thoughts alone will be capable of mapping out the flow towards attaining the desired result. Consumption as well as creation would be equally accessible.

Thus, it would take a brave person to visualise computing to be not too different 50 years hence and it would take a braver person still to not acknowledge that it would be more personal, simplified and commoditized. Computing would certainly usher in a brave new world by 2062.
A cringe-worthy read it may be but none-the-less it is one I wrote back in 2012 looking at 50 years hence. Can't really say I am prescient for it seems a re-hash of existing ideas.