Sunday, May 11, 2014

Enterprise Architecture: Musing on Buring platforms and Cycle of vendor upgrades

The recent announcement by Microsoft on discontinuing support (even paid extended, extended support) for Windows XP and the debate in the media has broader implications on burning platforms at hand. To those of us engaged in vocation of Enterprise Architecture, the topic of burning platforms (a.k.a IT Debt @Gartner) continues to manifest itself in different forms and at different times. It is an event that seems to surface with regular enough frequency.  And the issue is not just restricted to an IT vendor. On the contrary, the Microsoft XP debate just surfaces a larger issue at hand: the lack of disciplined Application Portfolio review and Management (APM).

The need to upgrade a collection of application platforms (open group definition may have a cascading effect across the ecosystem. E.g for a big bank to plan for upgrade of ATM (link) systems from XP to Windows 7 (or 8) it is not just a shift in versions of software running on the ATMs. Implications to hardware (obvious need to suddenly also upgrade hardware), networks (potential increase in bandwith), integration…. the whole nine yards. A version upgrade of OS requiring an enterprise - or at least division - wide APM exercise. Such an APM exercise focused on addressing a burning platform can generally be a knee jerk reaction that addresses “A” problem than the symptom. We don’t hear much of this topic, especially the strategic implications of burning platforms for several reasons:
One reason is because it is just not sexy to talk about issues surrounding “keeping the lights on” Many Architects would rather spend their time “architecting” and designing new systems and engage business, than in planning the upkeep of ecosystem on hand. Such upgrades are generally relegated to IT/IS service teams and generally written off as operational “cost of doing business”.
Ø  In a resource constrained environment where most organizations are looking to stretch every dollar; not taking a strategic view of vendor roadmaps and upgrade plans and its implications on one’s existing architecture is not only counterintuitive and surprisingly wasteful. 
Another reason this topic doesn’t get a lot of airtime is because many corporate Enterprise-IS/Business-Architects and IS leaders are busy reacting to individual occurrences of such burning platforms; and are busy negotiating workarounds with vendors and technology partners.
Ø  No point in rocking the boat by airing dirty laundry?
Perhaps the real reason is a clear lack of communication. There is a lack of systematic and periodic effort in trying to understand and account for the total cost of such changes. 
Ø  Without being forewarned, Business counterparts react to the challenge like a deer caught in a headlight.
An idea worth exploring: A simple dashboard that can easily show the complexity and highlight the TCO implications to a CIO’s business counterparts would be a cool tool to have


Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Tech Giants Struck Deals on Hiring. What deals?

The front-page article in yesterday’s WSJ (Silicon Valley Tech Giants Struck Deals on Hiring) made for an interesting read. Many of us in the IT/IS-tech industry have either suspected this kind of collusion for long, and some perhaps wished for it, when faced by high rate of attrition at critical times.

The article quotes observers who expect mediations for a settlement to reach a conclusion. Settlement on this case or not, a few reasons why we might see continuum of some form of “collusion” and informal alignments among executives of tech giants.  
  • IT resources, especially skilled and experienced resources continue to be scarce. ERP consultants, Systems Integration experts, mobile device programmers and even web developers can write their own paycheck.
  • Demand for IT resources is #Glocal. Demand for skilled personnel in micro-markets (esp tech hubs like Silicon Valley, research triangle parks and cities like Bangalore, Pune and Hyderabad) translates to a bulk of the “global” demand.
  • While the world continues to flatten mobility, especially global mobility of workforce continues to reduce
  • Many techies and IT managers continue to be reluctant to adopt use of tools and technologies of collaboration. Some of the challenge is cultural but there is also a strong human dynamic issue here: nothing like being able to sit across the table or yell across a cube to have a chat.
In this instance, the bosses of big giants in Silicon Valley - Google., Apple, Intel Corp. and Adobe Systems are accused of colluding to suppress wages, by agreeing not to poach each other's employees, among other things. And more interestingly, there is some “evidence” of this which is being touted in the lawsuit filings.

What is to say the bosses of offshoring IT giants in the Asian Silicon valley in Bangalore and Hyderabad aren’t doing the same?  Yes, yes, facts seem to be pointing otherwise: Infosys Q4 attrition at 18.7%One in 4 Wipro staff to get up to 20% salary hike There again, knowing how IT management “best-practices” continue to go global; perhaps . . . . .

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Feeding 9 billion people; can it start with us going vegetarian?

The cover story in this month’s National geographic "Feedingthe World" made me reflect on its byline “by 2050 we’ll need to feed two billion more people. How can we do that without overwhelming the planet?” Food for thought, perhaps topical for the long-weekend of good-Friday, Passover and Easter ahead of us.
It is springtime in the Northern hemisphere, bringing with it a refreshing change of scenery, greening gardens, and landscape dotted with multi-colored hues. With spring coming after a long winter with its fair share of snowstorms and “polar vortexes,” it is easy to ignore the latest UN report on threats from global warming. Global warming also has direct consequences on agriculture, which is bound to accentuate the problem of feeding a growing global population.
Lies we tell our children... about modern Agriculture and food
Working for a multinational agri-business giant, I am sometimes conflicted while trying to explain to my four-year-old where food really comes from. I find it amusing to read picture-books on farming with colored illustrations of quaint family farms, grain silos and barnyards with chicken, cows and goat meandering around. Yes, we still have some of these around. If you happen to drive out of Anytown USA or ride a train out of AnyCity, EU, you can still spot the big red barns, a few paddocks with horses and cows grazing. Picturesque scenery that proponents of “locally grown” and Community supported agriculture (CSA) movement would love to continue see in the landscape. But is that where food on our table really comes from?

Living in urban and suburban areas, most of us digirati are far removed from agriculture. Perhaps the closest we come to farming is in our kitchen garden experiments where we may be content to spend a few weekend afternoons sowing pre-grown plants on bags of gardening soil from Lowes or Home Depot, spraying an assortment of “miracle grow” chemical mix of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides. And by periodically watering the lawn and plants we are “amazed” to see flowers bloom along with a few veggies for a dinner salad. 

Books like “To Eat: A Country Life” and "The Town That Food Saved" that I read recently romanticizes hobbyist farmers and attempt to take us back to the quaint age of subsistence farming. The authors explain how passionate hobbyists with a few acres of fertile land can "sustain" themselves in modern day America.

The reality, as I would like to tell my son when he grows up, is that the bulk of the food we - urbanized denizens of this planet – eat is a product of modern agriculture, a.k.a industrial agriculture.
The reality of modern food: modern agriculture

There is so much cacophony and passionate debate on food and agriculture in popular press that obscures the challenge: how do we feed a growing population?

The debates also obscure the economic reality: tools and technologies supplied by agri-business are catching up with public demand; a demand for food and meat which is being shaped by modern trends and tastes. The recent New York Times essay “A Lonely Quest for Facts on Genetically Modified Crops” made for a fascinating read. It featured a local politician in Hawaii, Greggor Ilagan, whose quest for facts on genetically modified organisms (GMO) lead to a complete u-turn in his perspectives on the topic. The article echoes the challenge faced by policy-makers around the globe who need facts to weigh in on debates on modern agriculture. Facts that are especially hard to sift through with all the noise and cacophony.

A few basic facts food and challenge we face in the quest to "Feed the World"

Production: Growing and producing “food” is hard work and labor intensive.
  • A small minority of farmers support a vast majority of us, consumers of food.  “There are over 313,000,000 people living in the United States. Of that population, less than 1% claim farming as an occupation (and about 2% actually live on farms). In 2007, only 45% of farmers claimed farming as their principal occupation and a similar number of farmers claiming some other principal occupation.” -  
  • Rural flight (Wikipedia) is an irreversible trend. The trend to leave farms continues in historically agrarian societies including China, India and Africa.
  • Subsistence farming practiced in developing economies is impractical. The periodic wave of suicides among subsistence farmers in Asia and Africa is a heartwrenching, all too common phenomena (link). Subsistence farmers in most developing nations don’t have the social security net that hobbyist farmers in the west enjoy. (wonder how many western farmers commit suicide just because the monsoon failed?)
Consumption: Changing food consumption pattern constraints production
  • For majority of humans, Meat is coveted meal. “the amount of meat eaten by each person has leapt from around 22kg in 1961 to 40kg in 2007”  (Economist: Kings of the carnivores
  • It takes anywhere from 7 to 10 pound of grains – primarily corn, soyabeans or barley – to produce a pound of meat. Ergo the need to grow millions of tonnes of grain to feed a growing population. 
  • Converting grains to meat to feed humans is not only expensive and time consuming but also environmentally unsustainable. Massive amounts Methane generated by industrial animal farms is just another side effect. Time magazine reported that FAO data indicates that 18 percent of the Earth's greenhouse gas emissions were linked to worldwide livestock farming.  
  • The trend towards increasing meat consumption for food is not just restricted to the west. China and India alone have hundreds of millions of increasingly affluent middle class citizen craving meat; consumers who equate meat rich diets with westernization. (ref: Holy cow! Who moved my meat – Economic times)
Bottomline: Increasing quantities of grains and Meat for human needs cannot come from small-scale farms. The majority of food in our world is a product of modern agriculture – mega farms spanning thousands of acres producing corn and soyabeans to supply industrial cattle farms with hundreds of thousands of heads of cattle. Mega-farms are enabled by industrial tools and techniques  including use of chemicals – pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, growth hormones – and seeds that are genetically modified (GMO) or increasingly bred using marker-assisted techniques (ref: washington post)

Growing Demand for Meat as Food 

Behind the demand for industrial/modern agriculture is an odd little reality that seems to get little attention: our food consumption pattern, especially growing demand for large quantity of meat is unsustainable.

The national geographic article hits home when it says “The spread of prosperity across the world, especially in China and India, is driving an increased demand for meat, eggs, and dairy, boosting pressure to grow more corn and soybeans to feed more cattle, pigs, and chickens. If these trends continue, the double whammy of population growth and richer diets will require us to roughly double the amount of crops we grow by 2050.”

Growing up in middle class India in the seventies and eighties, it was not uncommon to see “non vegetarian” neighbors looking forward to the Sunday mutton biryani or fried chicken. However, for the vast majority of Indians, meat was an occasional indulgence not staple food. All this has changed as India “modernizes”. Middle-class Indians can not only afford to, but are increasingly asking for meat and chicken during regular mealtimes. My Chinese-American friends agree this echoes a snapshot of their native land too.

Is vegetarianism the answer?

If vegetarianism is the answer to world hunger, why are the gurus not actively advocating it? For one, vegetarianism is not fashionable or sexy. Most hardcore proponents of CSA and organic movements don’t claim any affinity to vegetarianism. Social icons like Oprah make waves just by trying a “Vegan Diet” for 21 days.  A few stock arguments against vegetarianism
  1. Protein: Advocates of western diet, perhaps rightly, point to the abundance of protein in meat and poultry. Protein is the basic nutrient and building block for a balanced human diet. No doubt. The myth that meat diet alone is a source of protein for humans needs is hard to bust. The western intelligentsia is drilled home this from an early age. Case in point the American diplomat who created a diplomatic furor when with her facebook comments that “mocked the Indian way of life, stating that her pet dog Paco got “more protein in his diet" than their gardener's, after one of her Facebook friends noted that Paco looks bigger than the man.” (link)  
  2. Behavior. Food habits and taste are innate behavior. Dietary preferences acquired at an early age are extremely hard to change. Even after spending a good part of the past two decades in America and Europe, I haven’t taken to eating meat, perhaps because I grew up in a vegetarian family. Same argument will be made by those who have grown up eating meat! (ref: Deepak Chopra on Becoming Vegetarian)
  3. Economics of meat – analysts have long obsessed over the efficiencies’ and economics of fast food companies. There continues to be a debate on profitability of dollar menus at Mc Donald’s and Taco bell but the debate is really about how cheap meat is! (link)
  4. Meat is cheaper than Veggie: The fact is Vegetarian menu items even at fast food restaurants cost more: A veggie patty at Subway cost more than a meat-laden foot-long that sells for $5! Wonder why? A good percentage of grains grown in the US is destined for animals and poultry feed, which in turn ends up as food. If meat is this cheap, one can only imagine how cheap grains would if we could bypass a complete step in food supply chain. 
There again, hardly any serious research exists on whether vegetarianism, even part-time vegetarian diets can alleviate the global food crisis. The occasional articles – e.g the Guardian piece “Food shortages could force world into vegetarianism, warn scientists” – end up sounding alarmist.
If not vegetarianism, where is the answer?

Notice the tone “force world into vegetarianism” in the Guardian piece; a tone like this is bound to unnerve many of us and is likely to minimize any rational discussion or research on the topic. An American is more likely to give up his first born child before he lets you pry away his stake, hamburger or ability to barbeque in his backyard all summer long!
But then if Americans aren’t going to change their culinary habits a bit, there is little hope in rest of world following suit. In a sense, meat eating, especially in developing nations is aspirational. For many there, a Big Mac meal at a local McDonalds is a symbol of joining the global economy as much as wearing blue jeans is.
A swing towards vegetarianism need not go to the extreme to make a difference. Abstinence of meat consumption is neither practical nor necessary to make a difference. Moderation is perhaps the mantra here. Proponents of vegetarianism should perhaps switch the tone and aspire for small changes: Abstain from meat certain days of the week. Perhaps a weekly lent  or a periodic Passover like diet to motivate a bit of reduction in meat eating?
What the world really needs is for a few more influencers like Oprah Winfrey and Hollywood stars to jump to the Vegetarian camp, or perhaps resurgence of Depak Chopra’s followers?
Of course, this hypothesis begs the question: could the savings of 7-8 times grains otherwise spent in producing meat be used to feed 7-8 times humans?

A lot would have to happen before that! Perhaps a topic for another blog.

Ps: don’t have to state the obvious: The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Souls lost on Flight MH370

After days of frantic search, use of advanced surveillance and all modern tools and technologies from around the globe at their disposal, the Malaysian government finally acknowledged today that the missing flight, MH370 'ended' in Indian Ocean. "We have to assume beyond reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and that none of those on board have survived," said the message. 

All 239 souls on board presumably perished!  My heart goes out to the families and loved ones of the passengers and crew on board the ill fated flight MH370.

It is not the ending most of us following the search on digital media were expecting. And certainly not something loved ones and families of the flight’s passengers and crew are going to be able to digest. And if any of them (or us) were expecting a sense of closure to follow, it may be hard.  On a personal note, only my wife Suja and I know how hard it was for us accept the reality of the abrupt loss of our child on board Jet Airways Flt 229 on 17th June 2008; the memory of which occasionally continues to haunt. 

An abrupt loss of a loved one from an accident can be hard to fathom. All the more if it is from an inexplicable event. The coming days, weeks and months will surely shed more light on the ill fated flight with “lessons learnt” for modern aviation; but hardly something that will ensure closure for the grieving survivors.

My sentiments echo that in the statement issued by Malaysian prime minister Najib Razakwe humbly offer our sincere thoughts, prayers and condolences to everyone affected by this tragedy.”

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Khushwant Singh RIP

On the drive to work this morning, I heard of Khushwant Singh’s passing in the news. Just wee bit saddened, I began musing on Mr. Singh and his writing. Mr Singh and R. K. Narayan were two writers who influenced me and perhaps many of my generation growing up in India in the eighties and nineties. I was introduced to his writing by my dad who suggested I read the bestseller “Train to Pakistan,” perhaps one of the best books depicting the human face of Indian partition

For a while, I was also hooked on his columns “With Malice Towards One and All” that were syndicated in local newspapers. This was much before the internet age, and I would eagerly look forward to Sunday papers that included my favorite columnist

Besides Train to Pakistan, Not a Nice man to know, and several collection of short stories and essays were a perrrinial read. His narrative style, with a bit of masaala and sex was something critiques loved to hate but influential bestsellers nevertheless.

Even with Mr. Singh’s passing, his bestsellers are sure to continue to shape and influence readers and those interested in knowing what makes contemporary Indians tick. 

Passing at a ripe old age of 99. A well deserved milestone indeed. Khushwant Singh  RIP

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Book review and musing on Food Revolution and vegetarianism

I recently finished reading “Voices of the Food Revolution” (link to my Amazon review). The book has some very interesting perspectives on Food. The editors, Johan and Ocean Robbins, interview several authors and “food revolutionaries,” primarily proponents of vegetarianism who oppose “industrial agriculture.”

I am a vegetarian by choice. Having grown up in a vegetarian family in India this theme  of vegetarianism certainly resonates with me. What I find intriguing about the book, however, is that many of the authors interviewed in the book have also sold millions of copies of their books on new age diets and vegetarianism. If millions of Americans have indeed read up on vegetarianism, one would expect some change in behavior and consumption, but the needle has hardly moved in 2014. Last I checked, majority of fellow Americans continue to be carnivores and omnivores. So what gives?
Interestingly, in other parts of the world, including China and India, the newly affluent middle-class is taking to eating meat and poultry like there was no tomorrow.  Googling on this topic, I was surprised to read an article in Economic Times that “Indians eat more beef than any other meat. Beef consumption in India is double the combined consumption of meat and chicken, India is also the third largest exporter of beef….” Holy cow indeed!

In the book, many “food revolutionaries” make persuasive arguments on reducing or avoiding intake of meat and how this can lead to health benefits for individuals, while also contributing to greater environmental good. General argument: reduced meat intake will require fewer industrial cattle farms and lesser grains to feed cattle and poultry.  Wonder if such argument is being made in China and India that will need their share of industrial Animal Farms to feed the growing demand for meat?
Other links:
  • The New Indian Pariahs: Vegetarians - NPR 
  • China now eats twice as much meat as the United States - The telegraph
  • India's growing appetite for meat challenges traditional values - Daily news

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Tech buyouts, innovation and corporate world: Case in point Agbiz!

Facebook’s $16 Billion Deal for WhatsApp announcement on Wednesday is sure to light a fire in the belly of every digirati and wannabe tech-entrepreneur. Billion with a B is a lot of money, and at times it feels like we are back to the hype era, perhaps with a fancy 3.0 moniker. And speaking of money there is a race to keep even our money virtual; Bitcoin anybody? As Brett Scott writes in New Scientist, “Bitcoin has brought with it a dream of an autonomous digital economy, free from corrupt banks and Big Brother governments.”

Reading of all this “innovation” is fun, though one generally moves back from virtual and digital to the reality of business and life. And the business of agriculture – the business of my employer - is perhaps as real as it can get. Even in AgBiz, innovation seems to be springing both serendipitously and also as a process of continuous evolution. A few months ago I was reviewing “Big Data meets big Agribusiness” (link), an example of big dollars chasing big innovation. The recent HBR blog “What Dronesand Crop Dusters Can Teach About Minimum Viable Product” made me reflect on innovation as a process of continuous evolution; bottom-up innovation if you will. Using the example, Steve Blank, highlights a few interesting lessons learnt
  • Build continuous customer discovery into your company DNA
  • An MVP eliminates parts of your business model that create complexity
  • Focus on what provides immediate value for Earlyvangelists
  • Add complexity (and additional value) later
Most of us in the corporate world aspire to innovate. Sometimes it is innovating new business models, ways of working or adoption of emerging technologies. In all cases, the end goal is to either impact the top line – increase revenue or growth – or the bottom line; reducing cost, bringing efficiencies etc. And unlike the occasional multi-billion dollar deal for WhatsApp that strikes the Olympic gold by translating virtual ideas and eyeballs to real money, innovation in corporate world is generally unsung and under recognized. Only a few innovations end up as the stuff of folklore either within the company, industry or if really lucky get a mention in a b-school case study.

Which brings us back to this case study on enabling “Precision agriculture.” Technologies, including innovative uses of data and analytics are playing their part but the end goal is the same that generations of farmers, for thousands of years have been struggling with: generating consistently better yield of crops while addressing the risks Mother Nature throws at them.  And if Ashwin's hyper-spectral cameras fitted on crop dusters can help improve yields, we will be moving slightly closer to the utopian goal of feeding the billions of fellow global citizen. Now, this is innovation with a purpose!