Saturday, July 29, 2006

Ridiculous idea of One-Laptop-Per-Child

As a matter of principle, I don't usually think better of the Indian Government and the bureaucracy, and they keep justifying my opinion, like banning blogspot, reservations mess and the AIIMS fiasco... But sometimes, they (and that too, the Ministry of HRD) do things with such foresight that I wonder if this the same bunch of people who keep navigating from one mess to another.

The latest in their visionary decisions has been to reject the One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) programme. To whoever conceived it, esp. Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC is going to change the world. He thinks it is for the better, but Indian Government thinks (and I totally agree) that it is for the worse. I'll go further and say, most of the beneficiaries of this programme would be doomed. But, the great thing about the decision is that it has been an informed decision and the government has evidently seriously considered it before rejecting it.

Technologically, it is great to have a laptop for $100. But, as this article points out, it is ridiculously out of touch with reality. Is it feasible, when many schools have roofs that leak, teachers don't attend schools, there is no power, and who is going to fix the broken ones ? And, while a laptop would be nice to have, is it really necessary ? Do we want children to submit homework in powerpoint slides ?

Having continously used a computer and laptop for nearly 9 years now, I think it is dangerously prone to misuse. If this programme kicks in, children would start using the computers to do even simple things ... like normal arithmetic. What the previous generation used to calculate mentally, I need a calculator; and what I do mentally, the next generation will need a computer. The degradation of the education system would be totally complete. You'll have one more problem to the already existing set of problems. Unless we want the children to become good gamers ... It would also affect children psychologically. It would reduce the interaction with the group.

Our education system lacks a lot of things, but OLPC is not the way to fix it. Great decision by our Government

Friday, July 21, 2006

Course correction

I really like people being blunt with me. Hmmm ... ok, I may not appreciate it immediately, or I may not admit to them that they are right (I've got this thing called "pride" you know), but over a period of I do appreciate their frankness.

A very dear friend of mine told me recently - "I think you are too judgemental and critical about yourself. You demand a high standard from youself. And, consequently, even if you judge others a fraction of what you judge yourself, they'd still feel that they are being judged by you and found wanting. They think you are arrogant and snobbish, even though you aren't. Because, they won't know or care how much more you demand of yourself. The solution is not to judge yourself, and instead accept yourself as you are"

On the spot, my pride didn't allow me to like, but for politeness' sake I told her I'd think about it, and I did think about it, and I must admit she was brutally right. It has been one of the greatest pieces of constructive criticism I've ever received. This was some aspect of me that I hadn't known before. I was similarly surprised when, at the time of leaving Netscaler, the general feedback was "we miss your dedication, passion and aggression" ... Dedication and passion, yes, I was, but aggression ? I never knew I came across as aggressive.

From past experience, I know that spirituality gives me the confidence and the courage to claim that personal change is indeed possible and in fact, very easy. I was really terrible in my early years of engineering ! The change starts from inside - at the heart - and gradually exposes it outside. It has been compared to the blooming of a flower ...

The trouble is knowing where the change is needed. Once it is known (as is the case here), and once I'm convinced from my heart that it is indeed required, and is aligned to the spiritual goal, then change is natural. The actual change itself shouldn't take time - it can be happen in a fraction of a second, but preparing myself for it - mentally, spiritually and egoistically, takes time.

The future promises to be great adventure ... let us see how it turns out !

Friday, July 14, 2006

where are the footpaths ?

Pune has become very muddy in these monsoon rains. In Bangalore, for years I used to walk for 2 kms each way everyday in all seasons to my primary school (Nivedita School, for those who want to know), and I don't think I found it very uncomfortable. Unlike here.
So, I kept asking myself what was wrong with Pune ? And then found the answer: there are no proper footpaths ! Somehow, somebody in the corporation must have forgotten to add footpath to necessary items while planning. The roads are good (read: similar to b'lore), but on the two sides, footpaths are non-existent in most places. So, the roads are clean but on the sides, it is very muddy.

I hate to give credits to Bangalore's footpaths, but atleast they exist :)

Monday, July 10, 2006

Dignity in triumph

Yesterday, I watched the Wimbledon finals between Roger Federer and Nadal. It was a study in contrast. Federer was cool, composed and dignified. No fist-pumping, yelling, no jubilation after winning a point. It wasn't that he was unhappy, it was just that he wasn't ecstatic on winning mere battles when the war was going on. Nadal, on the other hand, was celebrating every point, as though he was proving a point to himself. For me, it indicates a lack of self-confidence, that he doesn't believe in his own ability. It is what separates men from boys - Hewitt, Roddick, Nadal. Irrespective of who won, it was obvious who was the champion.

Pete Sampras was another. His game was considered boring, that he was too dominant ... He just came on the court, did his job and walked out. No theatrics, no pony-tail, no ear-ring (*hint*), no tantrums. His tennis was worth watching, and that was enough. No need for side-entertainment. He didn't lose his mental focus on silly things like that.

Why do I think it is so important ? More that the self-confidence aspect, winning should give the winner humility. That he spent a lot of effort on winning, but all he won was just a point, just a game or just another title, and that, in the ultimate scheme of things, it is probably irrelevant. That, all you won was just a battle. Anyone who thinks otherwise hasn't grown up. It is the maturity that is missing.

Friday, July 07, 2006

Management geek

My project involves integrating the work of some 3 teams here ... and problem with tech guys here is that no single person understands all aspects of the project. Each of mentors is upto his neck in own work, but when it comes to thinking about the entire project, they find it difficult to communicate. My teammates, the tech interns are pretty confused about it. Sometimes, the advice given by different mentors are mutually contradictory. But, for few notable exceptions (like my team-lead in Netscaler, Josephine), people I have come across are so involved in their own work that they tend to ignore the things happening in their own company. That's sad.

Anyway, my primary work here is to bring business insights to the project (and not project management). And that requires looking at things from different perspectives, from customer view point, from strategic view point, and finally, from a realistic view point. That meant I need to get the big picture right, and also understand the depths - to see if our project is aligned to the business goals. It was a struggle to get the big picture, because there are more tech guys here than biz guys. So, each of the tech mentors had their own version of why we are doing the project and that kept me confused for nearly a month. But, by then, I had dived into the depths and so was solid in understanding the project, and hence could draw my own conclusions, and most of them were proved right.

So, it has turned out that only I understand all the aspects of the project - the biz part and the tech part. Even in the tech part, we have the C++ and the Java components, and here again, only I understand both aspects (even mentors don't). Whether or not I like it, it has become necessary for me to become the sole pointman for the project, including for the tech aspects. Initially, I used to be a little schizophrenic, saying, "from business aspect, this is what you should do" and "from project mgmt aspect, this is what you should do" ... then, I became whole, and stopped looking each perspective separately. I unified my viewpoints, and when I suggested something, it was only after I had considered all viewpoints.

When I joined my MBA, one the reasons I'd given to my boss, was that I didn't like attention to details that programming involved, because I was a big picture person. I stand corrected: I've discovered that I'm good at integrating the big picture and the details, and consider both at the same time. Why is this important ? In my opinion, true innovation happens because of this. I've already suggested a couple of innovations regarding my project ... That is why it feels so special. In hindsight, I must admit that none of the people involved (product managers, project managers, sponsors, architects, mentors, leads or tech interns) in this project, who ought to have done that, couldn't. I'm positive that they'd have done a far better job, if only they started thinking from different angles. And I don't think this is unique to our project. That is why it feels so depressing.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Parkinson's law

There is a concept called Parkinson's Law which simply states "Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion". We've all seen this. Let us say, if you are required to do an assignment and submit it in 3 weeks, you'd do the same job that you'd do if you had to do it in 1 week. Somehow, if you are aware that you don't need to rush, you tend to take it easy till the last minute.

I hereby propose a modification, from now known as employment entropy theory, that states "work expands so as to keep employed the people allotted to it". If a team of 5 people can do some work X in time T, then a team of 50 people would do the same work in same time (or less). The additional 45 would not be wasting time, and they'd be busy in their own right. But, the increase in entropy (loss of useful time now spent in co-ordinating, managing, dividing and then integrating the work of these people) would mean that the cumulative per-capita useful work is now less.

My reference is to the performance of large companies v/s small companies. Vista is delayed, WinFS has been aborted, IBM Lotus Notes uses 1980's UI, Google can't do great things beyond its search engine (to their credit, they atleast try) and we are talking about super-rich companies with super-brilliant people. Yet, they can't do things fast. How can we explain this ?

The problem relates to work environment and the recruitment of people. Recruitment methods don't scale up. Nothing that I've studied so far in HR (though it won't mean anything - I got a DD grade in HR) talks about mass-recruitment. Recruiting 3 people is not like recruiting 300 people. Simple probability means you do tend to choose a lot of bad apples (even if proportion remains the same, the absolute number goes up), and even if they are few, their attitudes can affect the good ones. This, in turn, affects the work environment and nobody can do real work, because for that you are dependent on approvals, authorizations, assistance from people who are not serious or interested. It starts the rot slowly, and by the broken window theory, at mind-numbing pace, it envelops the whole organization, till nobody inside is aware that they can do things faster.

In his legendary book, the The Mythical Man-Month, Frederick Brooks estimates that the difference between a poor programmer and a good one is in the order of 10. So, when there are a lot of people, all the people, good and average will start performing to their lowest levels of their competence, and naturally, work suffers. But, given the levels and levels in hierarchy, is anybody concerned ?

Having worked in a startup, where you get things just done, and now being in a large company, however temporarily, is a torture. I'm confident that most things that people estimate would take a year or so, could be done within a couple of months, if the team is small and motivated enough. That means getting the "real coders" to do the work, and ruthlessly chopping off the deadwood. My solution to this problem would be: use the smallest number of people enough to do the project.

Update: Just after I posted above, I got the information from the horse's mouth, as it were. There, Prof. Parkinson mentions something very hilarious: Officials make work for each other. He also analyzes the reasons and his article quite simply eclipses my post above :-)