Friday, December 4, 2015

Drone careers: Why Amazon’s flying Drone delivery may not mean much to rest of us

Drones are making headlines all the time. Just this week we got our best look at Amazon's flying drone delivery program: Amazon PrimeAir. Many of us are either playing with cool-toy-drones (link: playing with my six-year-old  ) or aspire to play with them. Not surprisingly, drones are expected to surpass other electronic gadgets, tablets and smartphones as the number one Christmas gift this year.

Most articles also play on the cool-and-new-factor, though some also highlight a few practical uses of drones. Of the few recent drone stories, a couple that jumped out for me include the one about the increasing tax collection in Guilford County in North Carolina where I live. A local journal has an interesting article about Guilford County’s success in leveraging emerging technologies to increase tax compliance. (County FindsSpying From Sky Surprisingly Profitable). The article highlights an interesting mashup of technologies: “ChangeFinder” software and Drones “photographic mapping from the sky.” The ROI for the county is worth noting: $500,000 investment that returns over $600,000 annually! 

Another interesting story is that of a Chinese company pushing towards commercialization of drones for crop spraying. (WSJ: Chinese Drone Maker Plows Into Agriculture) This article is more about the "art of the possible," predicting potential for the future uses in Agriculture that analysts continue to watch carefully.

So, what do the cool stories mean to you and me?

Like many of us in the field of technology, I occasionally wear my “Technology Forecasting” hat. While catching up on the news and hype over drones, I began reflecting if the opportunities for individuals are a bit over-hyped.  

  • Next generation “iDrone” entrepreneurs:  While military uses of drones have taken off, we are at the very early stages of drone adoption, especially commercial adoption of drones. One can argue, the world is still awaiting the iDrone: slick, easy to use drones available for a certain price. An apple-like designer who can scale up and market such drones is going to be the top of the pyramid.
  • Drone Designers: There are a few cool, innovative drones in the market, but like the Chinese SZ DJI Technology example shows, those are still at a very preliminary stage.
  • Application Integrators:  Besides manufacture and design of drones, I think the real opportunity is for Software engineers, big-data analysts and ‘integrators.’ Entrepreneurs and organizations that can architect and commercialize applications, especially applications that can make money for customers, like the tax collectors at Guilford County or Amazon is trying to develop drones for package delivery.
  • Drone “Pilots” and operators  – While many of us will be playing with cool new drones during the holidays, one wonders how many would want to make a career of piloting drones. For one, such a “career” may involve living out of a suitcase, driving around the country operating drones for clients.  I wonder if the life of a commercial crop-duster-drone-pilot would be akin to a crop duster pilot.
  • Drone Mechanics and services: As the size and scale of commercial drone operations increases, one would need an entire ecosystem of mechanics and engineers to service, maintain and repair drones.

Many of us are excited over the possibilities and adoption of this cool technology. However, increasing government regulation in countries around the world – like FAA’s increasing regulation of Unmanned Aircraft Systems – are worth watching. The regulators could decide to restrict commercial drone; ensuring the hype crashes even before liftoff.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Design Thinking: Beyond the hype

Those of us who frequently browse business and technology magazines and publications would have noticed a surge in headlines about “Design Thinking.” For instance, just this past Sunday, New York Times business section had an interesting cover story about “IBM’s Design-Centered Strategy to Set Free the Squares” When the media journals like the esteemed Harvard Business Journal dedicate cover stories to such technology or business buzzword, one can be sure C-level Executives are taking note. (“The Evolution of Design Thinking” HBR – September 2015).

During the past few years, consulting firms have been “investing” in building their Design Thinking skills and capabilities. The HBR article describes how
"The pursuit of design isn’t limited to large brand-name corporations; the big strategy-consulting firms are also gearing up for this new world, often by acquiring leading providers of design services. In the past few years, Deloitte acquired Doblin, Accenture acquired Fjord, and McKinsey acquired Lunar."
Offshore consulting services firms aren’t too far behind
“Infosys has already signed up 22 customers on its design thinking offering and will train 30,000 of its employees on design thinking by the end of the year to further boost growth in that consultancy service”
“For this year the company has announced a number of 100,000, but the long-term plan is to make sure all TCSers i.e., 324,935 will undergo this training.” (
Corporate leaders are taking note of this buzz over Design Thinking, which means an opportunity for those of us in the corporate world to cut through the hype.

Beyond the hype

Consultants and self-proclaimed gurus are yet to converge on common terminology. Definitions and terminologies vary in subtle ways, but most experts agree on a few common aspects, like having Personae, Users and user stories at the front and center of any design effort. For instance, Stanford’s D-School (link) highlights “Empathy” as the start of a design journey. 

Most experts, likewise, agree on the need to “Define” the problem, “Ideate” and evaluate options and alternatives before commencing with rapid prototyping and testing by the user; finally scaling up execution: developing what works better and faster. While these are easy enough concepts to understand, one cannot trivialize the practice in real life scenarios; if Design Thinking were that easy, would HBR devote a cover story to the topic?

So what does this mean?

Many of us have long used aspects of user-centric thinking, focusing on use-cases to highlight user requirements. The approach is straightforward: identify and understand the interactions between Actors (Personae ?) and systems to achieve their needs.  That said, agreeing on “Architecturally Significant Use Cases,” with stakeholders has been a perennial challenge, leading to the design of systems that partially meet the needs of users, or in some cases meet the need of only a small segment of users.
This is where Design Thinking techniques, if applied skillfully, can help bridge the gaps in our understanding of the user’s needs and wants. By empathizing with users, understanding their needs, and prototyping and validating with them early in development cycles, one can ensure that the limited resources are dedicated to scaling solutions that satisfy most of their needs.
In the past few years, I have observed several large programs adopting aspects of Design Thinking. For example, early identification of Personae and interviewing key users are intuitive and common enough. However, many of us are in early stages of adoption, and are bound to encounter challenges that may include:
  • Diverging needs of Personae: The popular case study from “U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Center for Innovation”  highlights the divergence in needs of Personae. The four Personae - LIFER, TRANSACTIONAL, JUST-IN-CASE and THE INFREQUENT – have widely diverging needs.  For corporate design teams, without the deep pockets of the federal government, designing to satisfy all the needs of these personae, with limited budgets can be a challenge.
  • Business sponsors may not be users: Project sponsors - people with money - can be vocal about what they think users need. Sponsors may or may not understand user requirements, leaving the design team to wonder if sponsors also be included as distinct Personae
  • Typical users may not be the most vocal: The most vocal and eloquent Personae being interviewed may not represent the views of his/her peers, requiring the design team to be creative in gathering inputs
  • Organizational Culture: Organizational culture and internal dynamics may also dictate how Design Thinking can be applied. For instance in hierarchal organizations, where internal users are expected to manage with less-than-optimal solutions mandated by their leaders, design thinking needs to factor-in this constraint.
Please feel free to add to this list of challenges. And if you have used Design Thinking techniques in your corporate settings, please share your success stories too.

(Republished from my LinkedIn Pulse article)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

It’s raining free drones on Linkedin … but here is the catch

Attracting the attention of IT decision makers and influencers is hard. We typically get a barrage of inputs from articles in the trade press, analyst briefings and reports and many of us subscribe to RSS readers for topics of interest. To say that we are drowning in the deluge of information from which we are expected to draw insights would be an understatement. This said each of us probably has a small subset of favorite go-to sources. For me, scrolling through the LinkedIn home page to review articles, Pulse posts and topics that my peers have “liked” is among the list. This is the consumer side of the equation.

For the content producers – including tech companies, startups and others with a product to sell - standing out from the crowd and be noticed is especially hard. And it is easy to get lost in the deluge of information that typical IS executives, managers and other leaders receive every day. Therefore, it is not surprising to see creative approaches to reach out to prospects: if the number of a sponsored posts on my LinkedIn homepage is any indication, Drone giveaways seem to be it! 

Product and sample giveaways have been a favorite marketing tactic for ages. Tagging on the hype over drones and the geeky-cool factor of trying one out, this seems to be a catchy way to attract attention! So, what’s the catch, one is bound to wonder?
  • Time and effort: Even a cursory look at the ‘conditions’ that the hyperlink on the advert highlights a series of tasks one has to perform, including attending pre-sales pitches, downloading and trying software, linking back one’s network etc etc. All this translates to considerable time and effort one would have to invest to ‘earn’ the ‘Free’ drone.
  • Implicit and sometimes explicit commitment: by downloading and trying the software or engaging in the trail, one is committing oneself - and perhaps one’s employer. This may not necessarily be an issue if one was planning to evaluate such software even without the inducement of a “Free drone”.
  • Added to obscure rolodex/databases: One can expect a continuum of pre-sales calls, pitches and emails to follow after the demo, and perhaps much after the drone has outlived its novelty.
One has to evaluate if all this is worth the cost of a drone? Not for me, thanks; I am just as happy with the inexpensive Syma S111G that I bought on Amazon to play with my six-year-old 

(cross post from my LinkedIn Pulse article)

Friday, October 23, 2015

Here is why IS executives love to hate Excel Spreadsheet applications

Wrapping up an Application Portfolio Management (APM) initiative for a high-growth region for my employer, I was reflecting on the role user-developed “Applications” - including excel spreadsheets and access databases - play in supporting business processes; and what it means to IS executives and portfolio managers.

Office productivity tools like Excel spreadsheets and Access databases are enormously popular in the corporate world. Many, if not most white-collar jobs require analysis of large amounts of data and to take decisions based on ever changing parameters. Such data and information may come from corporate Applications, intranets, websites and other sources. Most reporting systems and many IS Applications also allow authorized users  to download such data or reports being reviewed. After downloading the data, tools like Excel may be used to merge it with other datasets , perform ‘what if’ analysis by varying parameters, or ‘visualize’ the results by creating charts and graphs.

It is not just corporate users who love this ability to download and analyze data on the fly. Most banks, financial institutions and brokerages enable customers to login and download their data and transactions in .cvs and other standard formats.

There is little debate over how much these tools empower ‘employee self-service’ and increase productivity. Such ESS is attractive to IS manages since there is no incremental cost or licensing involved: organizations generally license office productivity suites for the enterprise. And empowered users require lesser handholding or support.

Widespread use of local spreadsheets and user-developed scripts, and local databases may shift significant parts of the business processes to such ‘unmanaged’ tools, which by itself isn’t the challenge. However, the proliferation of data download, as the old adage goes, can be a case of too much of a good thing.  A large transformation of  a portfolio of Application systems may impact the downloaded data formats.  Here is an abstract of an observation from an APM exercise:
“Massive use of Excel Spreadsheet and Access databases to consolidate information, build report, perform calculation, simulations, process monitoring, workflow control, repository and other functional needs.”
Those of us who have worked in large enterprises will recognize that the observation is not atypical or isolated. During an APM review, those evaluating a new system or process may not be aware of all the people or processes ‘downstream’ using the data in existing/older formats. This is just one of the obvious challenges to be addressed during a larger transformation. 

The other bigger challenge with unmanaged data is the security and regulatory risk to an enterprise. Corporate users are no longer content to just download data to their corporate laptops and desktops for analysis using Excel and Access databases. Many are increasingly uploading such data to web based analytical and data visualization tools, or storing them on their personal cloud--data-drives for access from “home.” This leaves a big open door for those with malicious intent looking to access corporate data without breaking into a firewall.

Preventing download of data from corporate Application systems is not the answer; it can be counterproductive and stifle individual creativity and productivity. And so would be a policy preventing individuals or groups from developing their own Excel based ‘Applications,’ scripts or tools for data analysis.

It comes down to pragmatic policies and governance that encourages productive use of downloaded data while making users aware of the risks.

Towards the end of our APM reviews, I was walking by the offices of the consultants who had emphasized the pitfalls of Excel Spreadsheet proliferation. I was amused to see a coffee mug that read “I love spreadsheets.”

Note: I am trying to illustrate my points with Microsoft’s Office suite - Excel and Access  - but the arguments should be equally applicable to other popular Office productivity suites.

(cross post from LinkedIn Pulse)

Monday, October 19, 2015

Book Review: Flood of Fire - by Amitav Ghosh

My review of "Flood of Fire: A Novel (The Ibis Trilogy)" by Amitav Ghosh

Amitav Ghosh’s book is a well-researched glimpse into the history and politics of British imperialism and the business of narcotic drugs and opium, masked as a fast paced novel. Told through the eyes of colorful characters like Kesri Singh, Shireen Moddie, Captain Mee and Zachary Reid, Ghosh transports us to the life and times of the colonial era, centered on the annexation of Hong Kong and Macau by the British nearly two centuries ago.

The novel begins with an introduction to some of the main characters that initially feels a bit overwhelming and excessive. The novel is sprinkled with Hinglish and Hindustani as spoken by ‘Gora Sahib’ of the era, adding to the authenticity of the narrative.
After wading through the buildup, readers can experience the lives of the main characters who happen to come together from different parts of the globe - Zachary Reid from America who is out to explore the world, but finds himself transforming into a guileful businessman, Captain Mee from the British Army who harbors a dark secret, Kesri Singh, of East India company’s army, recruited from the Indian Hartland, who typifies brown soldier-for-hire of the era and Shireen Moddie, the widow of a prominent Parsee opium trader from Mumbai who migrates to China, who like fellow Chinese Parsees traders has a secret life that unravels after his death.

The lives of the main characters are intertwined in the ships - Ibis, Anahita and Hind - that are transporting a cargo of Opium while helping imperial British Army fight the Chinese. The characters and their travails highlight the futility and lack of moral justification for the Opium Wars.

While this is a novel about the politics of Opium, drugs and war two centuries ago, there are distinct parallels for those of us watching the news of contemporary history unfold: the “war on terror” in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan which is really about control of oil and energy.

(Cross posted from

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!

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What do you do if your employer is in news for takeover or M&A?

We wake up to news and rumors of mega-mergers almost every day; and in many cases, it is just news that we comment or exclaim about before going on with our jobs in the corporate world. I am not going to try to link to the ‘big’ M&A news since that is bound to be old-news by the time this is published. J Occasionally, however, such ‘news’ or rumor may hit closer home, especially if one happens to be working for a company that is an acquisition target, or has announced a merger with another (similar sized) company.

Jobs, roles and employees are bound to be impacted by any M&A. If the corporations are to realize the benefits of a merger or acquisition, they will have to “consolidate operations” and “streamline redundancies” and get rid of duplicate operations, processes and systems. People are an integral part of the equation, but the decisions, even those impacting jobs and careers can be very impersonal. The impersonal nature of corporate decisions has been captured in endless movies and documentaries (my favorite is “Up in the Air” featuring George Clooney as the corporate "Downsizer").

Although people are just ‘resources’ in the context of corporate planning and M&A, impact to individuals can be very personal. Therefore, the smallest news or rumor of an M&A can, and generally will be discussed in “informal” communication network between employees, contractors and others in communities impacted by the companies in question. Thanks to ubiquitous access to social media – blogs, tweets, discussion forums on Linkedin and Facebook - such informal communication may also get amplified, making it harder to sift through fact against rumor or gossip.
All this happens while the merging companies’ own “corporate communications” groups continue to work overtime trying to manage and ‘control’ communications.

What is at play is obvious: individuals seeking answers to a simple question “how will this impact me?” Employees and contractors may begin wondering if, when, and how their jobs will be impacted.
The answers to this question may not be obvious. In fact, will certainly not get answered till a deal is inked, decisions on the implementation of the ‘strategy’ are taken, and the process to execute on it set in motion. So, what should individuals (you and I) do while the wheels of corporate change continue to churn in the background?

Prepare to embrace change: when it comes
  • Prepare for a slow pace of fast change. Initial planning of a merger or announcement may appear to be in slow-motion (and happen in background) but will probably be executed fast.
  • Be prepared with your personal what-if analysis. No point in being caught like a deer in front of a headlight. A while ago, I was musing on Free Agents in the corporate world. I wonder if wearing a free-agent hat in our corporate careers may help soften the blow if we are impacted.
Try to avoid contributions to the rumor mill
  • There is enough speculation out in the social media. There may be wisdom in keeping your views to yourself
Minimize conversations on “Scenario planning” and “What if analysis” with peers …. unless this is expected of your role
  • Most of us are better off leaving experts (and external stock market speculators / investors) to do the “what if” analysis of M&A rumors
Bottomline: don’t worry about continually sifting through M&A rumor in an attempt to find nuggets of reality. Newswire reports and ‘news’ is increasingly mixed with rumors, headline grabbing and “quoting some unknown executives,” especially when it comes to M&A. Deals may or may not get inked, and even speculators in the stockmarket may not have the complete picture till a deal is announced and signed.

(cross post from my Linkedin Pulse post)

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Should a company’s annual report be required reading for Enterprise Architects's?

I was recently reviewing the Annual report published by my employer (Syngenta - link) and began reflecting on why it should be among required reading for Enterprise Architects. Most publicly listed companies have to publish an Annual Report, copies of which are generally available to shareholders, stakeholders and public on the company’s website. The format, structure and Table of Contents may vary, but most reports contain financial and non-financial information and also details on strategies and successes. Per the SEC, an Annual Report
is usually a state-of-the-company report, including an opening letter from the Chief Executive Officer, financial data, and results of operations, market segment information, new product plans, subsidiary activities, and research and development activities on future programs. Reporting companies must send annual reports to their shareholders when they hold annual meetings to elect directors. Under the proxy rules, reporting companies are required to post their proxy materials, including their annual reports, on their company websites.
A few reasons why an Annual report is a handy reference for Enterprise Architects
  • Data and Information: Annual reports generally contain a treasure trove of financial and non-financial information one can use. Companies typically include regional and business unit related information including growth, profitability and other details. Referencing such data in analysis and discussions can minimize ‘noise,’ as one can point back to the Annual Report as the source of truth.
  • Validate your understanding of strategy: Many of the strategic initiatives, investments and programs that EA’s review will be aligned with strategies publicly stated* in annual reports. Such a periodic review should help EA’s validate “strategic initiatives” being worked on vis-a-vis those communicated to external stakeholders. The execution of some of the strategies, especially those spanning many years may also be highlighted in consecutive reports to emphasize its significance to external and internal stakeholders.
  • Refresher on business ‘Buzz’ words: Annual reports are filled with buzzwords, acronyms, product information, and terminology that business leaders and executives may echo in their discussions. EA’s and technology executives should find it easy to catch on to those, and also continually refer back to the handy guide.
  • Onboarding external SMEs: Enterprise Architects periodically engage with external Subject Matter Experts for specific projects and to bring in external ideas. An abstract of the Annual Report can be a handy reference for onboarding external SMEs too, and can generally be done without a risk of giving away internal information.
I picked on a few obvious benefits of reviewing Annual Reports. But I don’t want to over-simplify the context and its limitations, especially since the document is intended to be publicly available. One can think of it as an individual’s Linkedin profile that highlights the background details and perhaps some of the recent achievements without giving specific details of the project/s the individual is working on.

There are bound to be obvious reasons why details of a strategy, tactics or execution may not be mentioned in the Annual Reports. Details of business intelligence, competitive analysis, tactics for execution or innovation and new product development may not be available. As should be apparent, some of the statements may feel like looking back in the rear-view and may seem obvious to those in the organization.

Enterprise Architects continually debate the need to have a seat at the table, and aspire to engage business stakeholders. A periodic review of the company’s annual report should be the first step in such executive engagement. Interestingly, review of Annual Report seems to get little mention in EA discussions and forums. Perhaps one reason is that fellow EA’s already have this in their toolkit, in which case the discussion is moot?

Cross post from my linkedin Pulse article

Saturday, March 7, 2015

What I learnt in a year running an Architecture Review Board (ARB)

Among my first tasks after joining the Enterprise Architecture team for my employer - a multinational Ag Biz company - was to redefine the Architecture Review Board (ARB), a need that was triggered by a review of our Enterprise Architecture program.

The head of architecture explained the company’s “history” of architecture governance and the shifting focus of the architecture function. As in many large multinational enterprises, the company’s IS team continues to evolve to mirror changing business drivers. The pendulum had swung from extremely governed to the laissez faire model, and I was tasked with operationalizing a fit-for-purpose ARB.

So, what did I learn?

As should be expected of any global organization, the architecture landscape is complex. Running the ARB process gave me a ringside view into changes being introduced into the landscape.

To appreciate the value chain, understand organization change
  • The architecture tradeoffs used to review proposals and the ARB recommendations are a good dipstick into the stakeholders’ appetite for change.
  • The ARB is integrated into the portfolio and program management processes. Hence, ARB members can try and understand Who (stakeholder/sponsor) is paying for the change, and Why (the value expected from the investment)
Appreciate the subtleties of “business” engagement

Passionate debates on engaging with business frequently surface in online Enterprise Architecture forums. Some of it is because the term ‘business engagement’ is nebulous, and may be used to describe several things
  • People – Business user of a business system or process
  • Functions - Business function like Finance, HR, Supply Chain etc, or Business unit - like the British or Turkish subsidiary of a multinational or the “Houston manufacturing plant”
  • Leaders and leadership teams – Ranging from top tier CxO reporting to the CEO/Board to leaders of functional or business units and others in between
During ARB reviews, I sometimes find it easier to just work with the sponsor - people with money or people who know people with money - than to debate how to engage “business”. The assumption is simple: sponsors follow the money.

Aspire for a “seat at the table” but be pragmatic

Engaging business to “define strategies” is another topic of continual debates in Enterprise Architecture forums. In reality, a seat at the table may be more about effective realization of strategy than about ideating on business scenarios in an ivory tower. For example, a few scenarios:
  • M&A: Mergers & Acquisitions are generally strategic business decisions involving a handful of people - the board, CEO, CXO, a business head or two and handpicked lawyers and accountant with sundry advisors.
  • Decision to expand or divest business: Also strategic business decisions involving only a handful of people.
  • Decisions to enter new line of business. E.g a software services company deciding to operate data centers or expand into “cloud operations” or an AgBiz company introducing a complementary solution for farmers
In these scenarios, EA’s and other senior managers may be engaged to enable execution *after* such strategic decisions are taken.

In this article, I try and highlight a few of my empirical observations and learnings. A more detailed discussion of Architecture Review Board and my case study can be found in this month's Cutter IT Journal article (Enabling Successful EA Governance -link).

Cross post from my Linkedin Pulse