Friday, September 4, 2015

Drowned Syrian toddler: A picture worth a thousand words

The image of the innocent Syrian toddler washing up the shores of Turkey has gone viral on Social media. Some in the media are calling this the 'defining image' of the European migrant crisis. (NPR: How Photos Of Crisis Can Shape The Events They Represent)

The silent image captures a lot of things almost at once: the loss of hope and dreams that float away when the innocent child was lost. And the well-dressed child with his shoes still on washing up the shores; it was not a ‘poor’ ‘pitiable’ child that died, but a well-loved, cared for child that perhaps had a long bright future ahead.

As a father who also lost a child while migrating across the globe, albeit under different circumstances, I can empathize with Abdullah Kurdi's plight. To lose a child unexpectedly, is one of the most heart-wrenching experiences, one that no human should undergo. Mr. Kurdi lost not just this child (shown in the image) but his other child and wife too; and with that were perhaps washed away dreams and hope..

This image also brings home the really sad sub-text of the story and the migrant crisis that very few of us in the West realize or are willing to acknowledge: The crisis in Syria and the middle-east was entirely preventable. Perhaps created and nurtured by our un-quenching thirst for cheap oil and the need to change regimes in countries that don’t bow to western governments. Nearly three years ago, President Obama declared “Assad must go” (Washington Post)
Well, Assad hasn’t gone (yet) but a weakened Assad government in Syria has led to a vacuum, one that is filled by ISIS/ISIL.
The father, Mr. Abdullah Kurdi hopes to take the bodies of his children and wife “back home” to be buried. Quoting the Reuters article (link), the grieving father Abdullah,  states "The things that happened to us here, in the country where we took refuge to escape war in our homeland, we want the whole world to see this. We want the world’s attention on us, so they can prevent the same from happening to others. Let this be the last."
The fact that even in this moment of utter grief, Mr. Abdullah Kurdi is able to think clearly is a testament to human resilience.
Those of us feeling for the little toddler and hoping for change should take a moment to pause and reflect on the root-cause here: How can we in the west prevent millions of displaced Syrians and Libyans find their way back home?
Repost from LinkedIn-Pulse Link to my story, including the loss of a child while migrating is in the eBook: “The Bounce!”) 

Monday, August 31, 2015

My Indian ecommerce experience: When rubber fails to meet the road!

There is a tremendous amount of hype over India’s homegrown eCommerce startup and incubator culture. Many are attracting venture capital and partnership proposals, some are tying up with larger, more established global firms, while some are dreaming of growing up organically. There is also an emerging sub-segment of innovators developing IS/IT ‘tools’ catering to other startups, a niche within a niche!

Living in America, working for a multinational, I generally get my inputs on these developments from fellow Digirati and articles in the media. During a recent trip ‘back home’ to visit my parents, I got to engage in conversations with friends and former colleagues, some of whom had left the comfort of a steady paycheck to explore and experiment with hi-tech startups. It was also an opportunity to ‘experience’ their services first-hand.

One such experience with the much-hyped startup OlaCabs stood out for me. The on-demand cab service, Ola, touts itself as India’s answer to Uber.  “Ola started as an online cab aggregator in Mumbai, now based out of Bangalore and is among the fastest growing businesses in India” - Wikipedia.

Here is a summary of my experience of Ola’s service – the good and the bad.

The Application: Registration and onboarding

The registration and onboarding process is seamless. All one requires is a smartphone with internet/Wifi, to download and use the App. After downloading and registering the cellphone and email-id, one is good to go.

As a technologist, I get to use a wide variety of applications on different devices. My first impression: the mobile App is easy to download and use.  The application is slick, and easy to use, and recognizes one’s location. To book a cab, the user is given just a few options - the way it should be – and the App uses the cellphone location data to identify the user’s current location.

The service experience: Could be better!

While traveling to Bangalore, I generally pre-book a cab from a local taxi service. The guy has a few cars and drivers on call, who are generally available, and has been reliable and economical for years. The process is neither hi-tech nor digital. Just walk up to the Taxi-wallah, give him my phone number, pickup time and preference on the kind of car I want, agree on the rate and I am good to go.
The hype over the online service and word-of-mouth recommendations from friends prompted me to try Ola. What could go wrong? My parents live in central Bangalore area and I could always fallback on other cabs if my Ola-experiment didn’t work out.

I planned to book a cab to the Bangalore airport for 9.30 am, the following day. I figured this would give us adequate time to get to the airport and check-in with baggage for a 12 pm flight. While booking a “ride later,” the App does not provide an option to select a car size. That morning, I got an SMS message that a ‘mid-size’ Mahindra Verito, license plate XYZ would be arriving. At about 9.15 am the driver called and said he was in front of our house and I came out of the house with our bags. The driver looked at the luggage and said only one of the two suitcases would fit in the trunk and he couldn’t take the other one in the vacant seat up front or the luggage rack on top. He didn’t want to negotiate an extra baggage fee and just left, leaving my wife and I scratching our heads. To say I was irked by the lack of courtesy or customer service would be an understatement: didn’t the guy know that passengers going to the Airport would have luggage? What would the customer do if he left them stranded?

Time was beginning to run out and I was really glad I had left a buffer for my maiden Ola-experiment. My parents, whom I was visiting were amused, and began prodding me to make a switch and call the local Taxi stand.

Undeterred, I decided to continue with the Ola experiment.

I decided to use the App again, selecting the “Ride Now” option. Interestingly, this option allows the user to view available Cabs of different sizes in the vicinity, showing approximate time. I looked up a “large SUV” that was about 15 minutes from our house and decided to book it. The Ola App confirmed my request and promptly gave me the cab guy’s name, make of car (Tata Innova) and the driver’s cell-phone number. Within a couple of minutes, I got a call from the driver who confirmed my location and also confirmed that he could take us with the luggage to the airport.

The cab arrived promptly and the guy even helped pick up and load the suitcases and drove us to the airport. At the airport, he said the distance – from home to airport - calculate by Ola app was a bit off and would I be willing to make up the difference. Having arrived on time, I obliged, including a tip on top.

Bottomline: It’s all about Service, Stupid!

The Ola experience made me reflect on service management. At the end of the day, the customer is paying for the service: a cab that arrives promptly, a driver who is courteous and responsive and gets the customer from A-to-B.

An App is just a tool, an enabler that the customer isn’t paying for. A slick, easy to use mobile app is really useless without a world-class service to go with it.

Ola, and its competitors must remember the market. If a single driver turns out to be unresponsive, the word-of-mouth and reviews on social media can drown the tremendous amount of hard work that goes into engineering and developing a service! And in a market like India, the competition is not just another online service, but the ubiquitous call-taxis, autos and other modes of transport that are easily accessible!

End-note: Would I be willing to use Ola again in the future? For me, it has been a hit-and-miss experience with Indian eCommerce. For my next trip, I will probably stick to hailing local cabs or walking up to the local taxi-guy!

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)

Monday, July 27, 2015

Why Application Portfolio Reviews and CMDBs continue to be expensive?

As the Enterprise Architect responsible for key IS applications, it generally comes down to me to guide and enable teams engaged in reviewing application portfolios. In my technology consulting days in the past, I had engaged in several “Application portfolio review” exercises for clients across industry domains.  In all these exercises, there is a common thread: high cost of such “application portfolio” data gathering exercise - in other words, a nice high-value billable engagement for consultants – that can add up in the context of large transformational programs, where understanding of “as is” landscape is a must have.

At the very basic level, the problem comes down to maintaining a verifiable, well maintained inventory of applications. Of course, for many uses, a simple “list” alone is not sufficient. Most of us who have been in the industry realize that for an application list to be useful, it has to inform a cross section of stakeholders looking for varied perspectives. Just a small subset:
  • Enterprise Architects: Seek data on applications, application components, data and interfaces between them, and more importantly the business capabilities and functions enabled by such applications. Such inputs are also building blocks for “Roadmaps” that inform the implementation of business strategies and are also used in scenario planning and defining business cases.
  • IS Architects and Others: Large technology transformation programs generally require an “impact assessment” to understand, and catalog the impact of changes in the existing application landscape. Typical questions include: How many applications in the landscape? How many applications supporting xyz process, who and how are the applications managed?
  • IS Executives and leadership teams: Generally interested in support cost, technologies adopted and other dimensions that can inform TCO of application portfolios, including strategic use of software licenses, vendor negotiations and optimizing the use of infrastructure across the portfolios (Cloud strategies come to mind but delving deeper on the topic in this article will digress us)
  • Operational and support teams: Managing the workflow of functional and technical changes and enhancements and propagating them through the application development life cycle.
  • Vendor and strategic suppliers: Access to application portfolios can help them proactively suggest optimization or leveraging new product and solution capacities.
  • Other uses: Include SoX compliance, responding to regulatory and audit requirements etc.
Reading thus far, you are probably right in wondering if CMDBs are the potential “silver bullet.”  Wikipedia defines “A configuration management database (CMDB)” :
“a repository that acts as a data warehouse for information technology (IT) organizations. Its contents are intended to hold a collection of IT assets that are commonly referred to as configuration items (CI), as well as descriptive relationships between such assets. When populated, the repository becomes a means of understanding how critical assets such as information systems are composed, what their upstream sources or dependencies are, and what their downstream targets are.”
A well-defined and managed CMDB tool may help an organization manage IT assets, including applications and infrastructure supporting them. Many tools also enable “auto discovery” of elements. An entire industry and consulting sub-segment of IT management focused on ITIL and IT operations has sprung up around configuring, supporting and managing CMDBs.
The gap – and perhaps opportunity – is when it comes to data about the business functional and capabilities enabled applications. These are generally defined in the product documentation (in case of COTS products) or in the functional specifications and design documents and need to be manually updated in the CMDBs. Even assuming an initial mapping of such data is accurate, the data generally degrades over time as the applications transform, functionality is added and technical and functional ownership changes.  Updating such changes in the CMDB is both expensive and resource intensive, as it is generally a manual process.
Unless managed with strong executive support, governance, and ongoing funding, the reliability of such data in the CMDB may degrade over time. Such lack of reliability may also weaken stakeholder confidence in the CMDB as the “single source of application information,” causing groups, divisions and transformational programs to begin managing their own lists in wikis, spreadsheets and other smaller ‘databases.’
In a way this is a classic example of being penny wise and pound foolish: by avoiding the cost of updating and maintaining CMDBs, the organization may end up spending a lot more in individual “application portfolio review” and “data gathering” exercises.
  1. These observations are based on review of CMDBs and application portfolio “lists” at large organizations spanning geographies and lines of businesses. Smaller organizations with smaller IT footprint and limited number of applications may not have the same issues
  2. Many organizations have their own definitions of applications and technology platforms. (Wikipedia)  Hence, I have refrained from defining “Applications” in this writeup.

(Repost from LinkedIn Pulse)

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Waiter! There’s a fly in my soup! Lessons on finding a steel-wire in a takeaway Pizza

We have all heard “Waiter, there’s a fly in my soup” jokes many times, but hardly ever stopped to think: what would I do if I really had a fly in my soup? Well, I had to reflect on this since it wasn’t a fly, but a piece of steel wire in my takeaway Pizza that I was enjoying with my wife and five year old.

First things first, my experience is probably an exception to the norm. Finding a harmful/strange object in a takeaway food, especially from a large chain is certainly not the norm.
Here is a gist of my experience and interactions with Pizza Hut (PH): I ordered a large pizza online, and picked it up at the local PH on the way back from work. My wife, son and I begin enjoying an early dinner and midway through, I feel a strange, crunchy object in my mouth. I took it out and was surprised to find a steel wire, about 3/4th of an inch. With this, our dinner came to an abrupt end, and I begin wondering what I should do.
  1. Drive down to the PH location with the object, and confront the store manager?
  2. Call the customer service number? Or
  3. Take a picture on my smartphone and tweet a complaint?
I went for option C.) and tweeted a complaint with pictures to @PizzaHutCares @pizzahut along with  hashtags #complaint #UPSET! #Pizzahut (link to tweet)
@PizzaHutCares responded, directing me an online webpage (link) where I could send details to customer care, which I did.  The next day, I got a call and email from Billy, the local GM
“We do apologize for the recent incident you had at Pizza Hut, please call rgm. Billy Mcgill for a full refund on your product and if you keep the object bring to the location so we can see where it may have came from. Again we want to apologize for the trouble that this has caused you and will try to make it right with you,
Questions please call (xxx)yyy-2800 and speak with the general manager”
After talking to Billy, I stopped by PH location with the rest of un-eaten Pizza and steel wire, and refused a refund that the store manager offered. I explained that I wanted the metal object investigated. And if they would inform me how this issue would be prevented in future. The next day, Billy emailed me:
“Hello I have looked at the object you sent me and I've been with Pizza Hut for over 20 years and have never seen this type of material used in store or equipment, again we apologize for this issue and will double check all items before sent out to customers so this doesn't happen again. Again for your issue we have added a credit to your account to replace your order on your next visit if you choose to give us another chance.”
The interaction with Billy and PH’s customer service left me with a gnawing feeling. They acknowledged that there was an issue, but didn’t explain how it would be fixed. For instance, I continue to wonder if (and how) the Pizza Hut branch that I went to has cleaned their kitchen? Are there other consumers who might end up getting a steel wire and may accidentally ingest it? I also wonder if I should be calling the local city/county health inspector to have the location inspected.
Wearing my Enterprise Architect hat, I also began reflecting on Pizza Hut’s “customer complaint” process
  • There is a “process” in place for customers to complain, as most retailers do
  • The process includes “social media” tools like twitter, emails and websites
    • A tweet to @PizzaHutCares generally gets a response directing the customer to send details of complaint to an online webpage
    • After entering details on the complaint webpage, one receives an email with “Incident number”
    • The incident is forwarded to the manager at the branch/franchise location
    • The manager calls the customer
  • After this, the process seems to be broken:
    • After the initial “social media” response, the action or resolution is transparent to the customer.  
    • Feedback to the consumer is absent after the initial contact. For instance, I continue to wonder if (and how) the Pizza Hut branch that I went to has cleaned their kitchen?
 Before you jump up and suggest what every blue blooded American could/should do in this situation - sue them - here what I found googling on this topic, I found that I am not alone, and neither is Pizza Hut the only culprit in town. (link: What can I do if I found a metal object in my pizza that I had delivered from Papa Johns?)
In this instance, my family (and Pizza Hut) were probably lucky: I didn't ingest that metal wire. Therefore, it is probably not worth the time/effort to pursue this further! So, what is the consumer in me going to do:
  • Blog about my experience (here it is!)
  • Am I going to go back to that PizzaHut location anytime soon? Probably not (PH lost one customer. Big deal, you might argue)
  • Continue to wonder if there a large scale, systemic problem with PizzaHut? Probably not. Else, we would be seeing a large action in social media
Bottomline: Mark this as just another case of poor customer experience (caveat emptor). Life is too short. Move on.

(Reposted from LinkedIn Pulse)

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Disney's H1-B Visa saga: Storm in a social-media teacup?

On the drive back from work I heard “Disney Suddenly Cancels Layoffs For Technology Employees” on NPR’s “All Things Considered,” with interest, and a bit of amusement. To me it sounded like Patrick Thibodeau, the editor from Computerworld was taking a victory lap, explaining to NPR's Audie Cornish “about why a round of layoffs for some 30 technology employees at Disney-ABC Television Group was suddenly canceled.” 
Patrick talked about his article “A restructuring and H-1B use affect the Magic Kingdom’s IT operations” and research and also other articles that lead to Disney’s change of heart. It was the media!  
I read through the front-page NYT article “Pink Slips at Disney. But First, Training Foreign Replacements” with much interest. Having lived and worked in the offshore-outsourcing/offshoring industry much of my working life, I can relate to both sides of the sourcing equation.The Computerworld and NYT articles are well researched and capture many of the pertinent details.
To be fair, what got Disney to do a double-take and eventually agree re-hiring workers was perhaps the social media “viral effect.”  The article had all the right key words to get American tech workers rattled: outsourcing jobs, H1 Visas, job loss at a beloved company etc. This probably prompted “Sen. Bill Nelson asks for probe into visa program used by Disney (link)” 
But reading the article and follow-up actions, I was left wondering if the Disney H1-Visa saga was a storm in a social-media teacup, or a symptom of something bigger? A few reasons for this thinking
  • Outsourcing is not new: American tech workers have come to accept the reality of outsourcing for the past decade-and-half
    • Business leaders are answerable to shareholders and investors. … and will use all means at their disposal to reduce costs
    • Outsourcing “non core” business operations, including IT development and maintenance is one way to reduce costs and increase businesses profitability
    • Job loss is an unintended (but real) consequence of outsourcing
    • Jobs that are outsourced by companies are very rarely in-sourced back
  • Nothing new about the H1-visa debate.
    • Even going back 15 years, before the era and even the infamous Y2K problem, consulting companies were getting “foreign/guest” workers on H1 visas
    • Tech workers have been losing jobs-to-outsourcing for the past decade and half
    • Most fortune-500 companies have already sourced much of their IT development work to offshore service companies
  • Politics of Immigration and H1-Visas
    • Endless articles were written and the issue debated in the past three presidential elections
    • Lawmakers have two constituencies: businesses in their districts that generate revenue (and contribute to their elections) and people (who may lose their jobs and vote them out). Balancing the two is a delicate act
Given this context, I was left scratching my head over the issues mentioned in the article: Outsourcing is already an accepted practice among fortune 500 companies. So why is the media calling this “flagrant abuse of the H-1B visa program by Walt Disney World”

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Are International Assignments overhyped?

The other day, a colleague and I were having a water cooler conversation about the “Global Operations Centre” being established in England.  The colleague happens to be a North Carolina native, someone who hadn’t relocated or moved more than a couple of hundred miles in his entire life, and who only occasionally travels out of the US for business or leisure. He was musing on whether it would be cool to consider an International Assignment.

This topic also gets regular media coverage; for example, just this NPR’s weekend marketplace radio program had a feature on migration that began with a question “what is your migration story?” which got me musing on International Assignments.

International Assignment” has a certain cachet, especially among managers and executives aspiring to climb the corporate ladder.  Management consultants, MBA courses and business journals have long glorified IA stints as a “must have” on an executive’s resume; especially for those looking for top level positions. And rightly so. For some, an IA may be an opportunity to enhance skills, work in a new line of business or gain deeper understanding of different markets and cultures. Managers working in a branch or satellite offices of multinationals might also seek IA as a necessary tool for networking that can enable them to spend some quality face time at the corporate HQ. These are just a few reasons companies encourage up-and-coming managers to consider stints overseas.

In some businesses, especially in technology outsourcing/offshoring and IT consulting – in which I have spent much of my working life - international assignments are commonplace.  In this business, foreign assignments, deputations and frequent travel are almost routine, and expected cost of doing business. As the world gets more connected, or flat - apologies Tom Friedman – and remote working technologies advance, one wonders if the allure of International Assignments is eroding.  A few factors playing out:
  • Technology: Thanks to ubiquitous access to high-speed networks around the globe, advances in commercial and consumer video conferencing technologies and use of remote collaboration tools there is a lesser need for teams to frequently travel across oceans. For instance, last week I was in a three day workshop with colleagues from across three continents, five locations connected by high-speed “Telepresence” conference technologies, orchestrated to manage time zone constraints. The planning workshop was perhaps as close in terms of productivity as having the twenty or so attendees flying across the globe. The only minus, perhaps, was the lack of a lively team building in the evenings at dinner over beer or wine. Such meetings or workshops, aided by advanced VC technologies, if managed well, can minimize the need for short term travel for meetings. But I wonder if they will substitute for true “international assignments.”
  • Immigration and visa constraints: Immigration and visa restrictions have long played out when it comes to international assignments. Those from ‘developing nations’ have long known of this constraint and learn to ‘plan’ their way around it. Most western born executives, especially IT executives have learnt at least a few basics of the restrictions, especially while dealing with colleagues with Indian, Chinese and other Asian passports who may not be globally mobile. The situation in the tech world is accentuated when the lines between short term business travel, work permits and immigration get blurred. There are times when an IA may just lead to immigration. This is especially true for those coming from developing countries like India and China to western nations. If it is hard to get a work visa, why not go a step further and seek an immigrant visa, is one school of thought. And speaking of intricacies: those with American or European passports may also have to seek a ‘work permit’ if they are planning to live overseas on an international assignment.
In some cases, an individual might spend an entire career in a series of international assignments. An example I continually reflect on is that of Bob, a senior manager I once worked with. He was an expert in ERP technologies who had honed his skills in several technologies. He would proudly introduce himself as “the guy who had implemented SAP in 30 countries in five continents” during his 32 year career with a multinational.  He was technically astute and was comfortable working with people of all backgrounds, cultures and at different levels in the organization. He continued to love relocating and moving till he finally opted to ‘retire,’ in his sixties; perhaps living by the old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss”. Bob, is not alone in this, but was perhaps one of the few who could live this dream, balancing work, travel and life!

International Assignments have taken the form of a series of gigs for me too. It has been a conscious decision for my wife and me to uproot and relocate and move. I have lived and worked in five countries across three continents in the past decade and half, and have traveled to a dozen more on business.  I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any other. (Some of my experiences are chronicled in the novelized eBook ‘The Bounce!’)

Cross-posted from my LinkedinPulse blog

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Maggi Noodle Musings

The Maggi noodle saga playing out in the Indian media has been closely watched by the middle class and Indian diaspora. After a dozen or so states in India banned Maggi noodles, the central government finally stepped in with a national ban. (WSJ)

Even this account is slightly perplexing since The Independent in an article says “the reason for the ban is, the “concerns of excess lead levels,”  and adds

“The food company said in a statement that the noodles were completely safe, but explained that “recent developments and unfounded concerns about the product have led to an environment of confusion for the consumer. . . . It said that, due to the confusion, it had voluntarily "decided to withdraw the product off the shelves, despite the product being safe".

I am not even going to speculate over what a safe level of lead in food is. The government and media are sure to sort that out. And for those in the west wondering what the bruhaha over ban of Maggie in India symbolizes? It is perhaps akin to banning Pizzas from American college dorms. The outcry is perhaps similar to the one seen in Britain when the government first tried banning newspapers to wrap the unofficial national dish of Fish and chips.

Maggi and I go back to the mid nineteen eighties while I was growing up in India. Nestle made initial inroads by creating a market where it didn’t exist by smartly catching the young. My first taste came from a couple of packets I got at school - Kendriya Vidyalaya R.K Puram - in Delhi, circa 1984-85. Maggi also contributed to a few of my childhood memories by giving away t-shirts, games and other swags in exchange for used wrappers. Smart move on their part. My generation that grew up in middle-class-India, and the ones to follow were hooked by Maggi!

In the decades since I first ate Maggi, it has become an Indian cultural icon; and one can argue the brand ushered in the Ready-to-eat phenomena in India. Just a few examples:

  • For young working couple and those on the move, it is a practical alternative to eating out at an (questionably hygienic) dhaba or roadside eatery. All one needs is a kettle of boiling water and in a few minutes a ‘meal’ is ready to eat.
  • On the Indian matrimonial websites, brides-to-be proudly claim their culinary “achievements” include making a cup of chai or a plate of Maggie noodles!
  • This is also a quintessential Indian export for the diaspora. Local Patel brothers and Indian grocers across the US stock inexpensive Maggi and packets of Maggi noodles are among the must-carry for young Indians coming to study at American campuses or to work on H1-Visas.

Reading accounts in the Indian media, I am slightly amused. I am also left scratching my head wondering if this is just a proverbial storm in a clich├ęd Maggie kettle? Even if we give the benefit of doubt to those crying for Nestle’s pound of flesh, logic dictates that “excessive” amounts of lead-or-any-other-chemical in a ready-to-eat food will be harmful only if eaten in excess.  Now, those eating Maggi as a staple daily dinner should be concerned, lead or not!