Sunday, February 7, 2016

Why We Need Both Google and Apple

When Google overtook Apple as the most valuable company in the world a few days ago, there was wide media coverage—as one would expect of such epoch-making events.

Comments from the fanboys on both sides came fast and furious as to which company deserves the accolades more than the other, which one is more innovative, or which one superior in terms not just of stock market but in sheer technological or design prowess.

I cannot help but remember that about two decades back when the Cupertino computer maker (computer maker!) was struggling, many journalists would begin their articles thus: “Troubled computer maker Apple…” (It’s another matter that many of the same journos couldn’t later stop going gaga over Apple’s iPhone and iThis and iThat.)

Another point to note in case of both Google and Apple is that they represent the end consumer side of computing rather than the enterprise side—which is why as an enterprise technology writer, I have tended to ignore them. But that’s not the case anymore: with the increasing consumerization of IT having an impact on enterprises and with BYOD a frequently bandied about term in CIO circles, the inroads that these two behemoths have made in the hallowed portals of biztech are just too deep and wide to mistake them for mere bylanes.

And yet, there are, IMHO, certain existential and fundamental differences in how the two firms work, live, strive, prosper and struggle. Having said that, I believe both (or other avant-garde technology stars that show similar sparks of genius in the computing universe) are necessary as well as desirable.

If one were to distill the essence of the two giants into tiny philosophical catchphrases, one might come up with this: Google is a “Don’t be evil, do-gooder force unleashed by its founding duo” while Apple is the delicious icon borne of its late design-obsessive marketing whiz who is recognizable by his first name, last name, beard or even the turtleneck he wore. (If you Google “Steve + turtleneck,” you’ll likely come across this interesting story behind the why of the turtleneck tidbit.)

The story of Google is replete with search algorithms, PhDs, swanky culture and free-time-stealth-mode projects; while the tale of Apple is spun out of superlative design skills, maverick behavior, marketing bravado and supply chain dominance.

If Google is about software architecture and data analytics, Apple is about an iconic product at the center of its resurgence; if Google is for a long string of continuous innovations some of which become self-driving machines, Apple is about an exquisite mix of style-and-substance rolled out in tune with the moment (and the moment repeats in well-orchestrated cycles).

Google, which seems to defy the G of Gravity in its rising fortunes, is trying to subsume the Alphabet, the very first of which is A (and A is for Apple as most techno buffs learned in mobile class). But then, A is also for Android—and tell ya what, this A is getting bigger all the time!

You can find rhyme and poetry in both companies, in addition to the innovations that their engineers, architects and designers come up with every so often.

That is why both are on my list of Smart Watches and why I said that we might need both to get along in the increasingly bewildering space of technology. A realm that is now constantly defined by the quest for simplicity (hiding behind a gargantuan back-end complexity).

There are domains where the two companies’ paths cross, and there are products and services where they overlap; but it is hard to imagine a world—at least at this moment—where any one of them is A for Absent.

(Image credit: SearchEngineLand.com)

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Leading Data Scientist Talks about, Well, What Data Scientists Do!

Just as data keeps proliferating all around us, there is a great hue and cry about what to do with all those terabytes, petabytes, exabytes…whatever bytes you! Sure, there are ever powerful number-crunching machines and more capable software, but at the end of the day, you are going to need professionals especially skilled in the science of data analysis, management and insights.

That will be the Data Scientist, a role dubbed by some as the sexiest job of this century. Sexy not necessarily in terms of what all it involves but certainly in the high demand and even higher pay packets.

But what exactly would these data scientists do?

An illuminating blog entry on this very interesting and still intriguing question was posted recently by Bernard Marr, an analytics expert and founder of Advanced Performance Institute. To demystify what the work of a data scientist actually involves, and what sort of person is likely to be successful in the field, Marr spoke to one of the world’s leading data scientists, Dr. Steve Hanks—a doctorate from Yale who has worked with companies like Amazon and Microsoft.

Currently the Chief Data Scientist at Whitepages.com (whose Contact Graph database contains information for over 200 million people and which is searched 2 billion times a month), Dr. Hanks talks about some key attributes of a data scientist: One, they have to understand that data has meaning; Two, they have to understand the problem that they need to solve, and how the data relates to that; and Three, they have to understand the engineering (behind delivering a solution).

While all three of these capabilities are important, writes Marr, it doesn’t mean there’s no room for specialization. He quotes Hanks as saying that it is “virtually impossible to be an expert in all three of those areas, not to mention all the sub-divisions of each of them.” The important thing here is that even if one specializes in one of these areas, one at least has good appreciation of all of them. Further, in Hanks’ words: “Even if you’re primarily an algorithm person or primarily an engineer—if you don’t understand the problem you’re solving and what your data is, you’re going to make bad decisions.”

I can especially identify with the “holistic appreciation” quality of data scientists, as many CIOs and development project heads have often shared similar sentiments about most code writers: they are too narrowly focused on the “problem” at hand and usually miss the big picture about the whole project.

Fortunately, unlike the job of a programmer, the field of data science is attracting or likely to attract people “of different personality types and mindsets.”

Having said that, the main challenge for data scientists is not in specializing in a particular machine learning algorithm or a particular sub-field or tool, but in keeping up with the general speed of development in data science, the blog notes.

For more interesting details and insights, I would urge you to read the full blog post.

Do let me know what you think of the fast-emerging field of Data Science.


(Note: This blog post first appeared on dynamicCIO.com. Image courtesy: Americanis.net)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Selected Thoughts from Strings of the Soul - Happy Reading!

As another calendar year draws to a close, most of us are wont to making resolutions, looking back wistfully (or dreadfully) at the recent past, or thinking deeply about what to make of the time yet to come. Somehow, the turning of the clock at midnight, when one year melds into another, makes us do something to mark the occasion (as if a calendar year is the perfect way to divide time into significant periods :)

So here's my own little contribution to this gigantic, collective effort of humankind. What follows are some selected thought-bubbles, aphorisms as some would call them, from my book, Strings of the Soul (you can buy it for Kindle app or device here.) It is a little volume about a few things in life that really matter - Love, Truth, Childhood, Wisdom, Happiness...

Hope you'll enjoy reading this post and, if you are kind enough to make a purchase, the whole book. Here it goes:

Our own heart and mind is the best place to escape all the wretchedness of the world.

Diseases are the unwanted weeds in the fragrant garden of our body; nasty thoughts, the drops of poison in the nectar pond of our mind.

There are countless parts to us, both visible and invisible. But there's only one us. One I. One You. We are truly healthy when we can really feel this one single wholeness of ourselves.

Meditation takes you away from the torrent of oppressive thoughts into the inexplicable joy of stillness.

Even though a child cries during birth, the only feeling it knows is joy; everything else is inflicted by others.

The mere thought of children puts a smile on my face, a song in my heart and a supreme sense of blessedness in my soul.

As long as children have the ability to love unconditionally - no matter how much the grown-ups tamper with that - there's hope for all of us.

The child inside man never dies;
Only, more and more silent grow her cries -
Of joy, of pain, of wonders infinite...
Ah, won't we be child again if time would permit.

Whether we choose to live on for something or die for a cause is not important; what really matters is the spark of optimism in our choice.

The distance between despair and hope can be a leap of faith or a chasm of doubt.

Adversity can get us depressed. And sustained troubles can keep us down for long periods. But bad times often strengthen our optimism: things have to get better, is the message that floats up from the bottom of our heart.

Hope is the daughter of tomorrow that is forever youthful, forever chaste, forever attractive. 

I have often tried to define love – and failed. But each time I failed better than before.

When our heart is too much full of love, we must pass some around; when it’s too empty, we should try and get a refill.

Sex is an act; love is a process.

It is not the truth that is ugly; it is our reluctance to face it.

Higher truths do not reside at high mountain peaks; they are nestled in the greater depths of our hearts.

All of us know the truth but most choose to believe in what is untrue or, worse, tell lies to cover the truth, to bury it deep down from where no one can discover it. Ultimately, though, someone always finds it – or it comes floating unaided on an ocean full of lies.

Lies are like flies: they hum and swarm and tend to spread the muck around. Truth is like the turtle that must find the most appropriate time and place to lay its eggs.

Truth is like the perennial river that keeps flowing past the silt of lies it gathers in its course. 

It is impossible to be alive and vibrant and not appreciate art. Feeling good about art runs in our blood: it is engraved into the innermost nerves of our brain, painted on every tiny speck of our body and infused into each and every breath we take.

We did not create art; it was art that first created us.

The progress of humanity is not possible without the progress of art. Because at the core of art is what it means to be human. Humanity and art feed on each other in their evolution.

A well-sculpted mind is a work of art, but a loving heart is an instance of divinity.

Having faith does not mean we do not ask questions; it means being sure that we’ll finally get answers.

A silent spell of gratitude is worth a thousand words of prayer.

I often hear the lament: “Why do we have so many religions?” To me, the problem is not one of multitude but one of harmony. When our minds are not in harmony, it doesn’t matter which gods we worship, what languages we speak, what foods we eat…But when our minds are in sync, we can peacefully have more religions even after we have had a thousand.

Each pilgrimage to God's temple begins in your own heart.

If looking at the smiling face of a child does not convince you of the existence of God, nothing else will.

In any age there are true gurus who can show us the path to God and there are the frauds who feed on the blind faith of the masses. If we cannot find the real guru for us, the failure is ours.

What if the current configuration of the world does not permit of a true guru? Who says YOU can't be your own guru? The inner voice that speaks to all of us can also be our guru – if we let it be. 

Balance is the essence of sustainability. Something that makes things go on in the universe. Without the balance of gravitational and other forces of nature among celestial bodies, the earth wouldn’t exist. Without the balance between the ecological and geological components that make up the earth, the life forms wouldn’t remain alive. And without the balance that exists in a food chain hierarchy, we wouldn’t have the diversity of life among the living.

Beauty is not lack of ugliness. For even an ugly thing in one situation can be beautiful in another. Beauty is the hidden virtue in what is ugly otherwise; the moment the virtue becomes visible, the erstwhile ugly turns into the here-and-now beautiful.

Beauty can make us laugh with pain; it can also make us weep with joy. Isn’t it remarkable that this is not a stark contradiction but a unique human experience?

Of all the relationships humans have forged, friendship is truly special. It contains the distilled best of all other relations and the worst of none.

We often forget that being connected is more about listening than talking.

It isn't always necessary to wish for change; sometimes, we must change what we wish.

Kindness of the heart is directly proportional to broadness of the mind.

Time flies
But tomorrow never dies;
It merely frolics in the lap of eternity,
Unfettered in the boundless skies...

An irony of our time is that nobody knows where they are going, but everyone is frantically trying to get there.

To cry sincerely is as important as to laugh freely. Perhaps more.

The quality of our laughter reveals the constituents of our character.

Wisdom is the knowledge that at any given moment, the right choice is the one that helps the most number of conscientious creatures. And what separates wisdom from mere knowledge is the courage and humanity to make that choice.

Knowledge has to be acquired; wisdom comes.

I may be wise or I may not be. But if I profess to be wise, I might actually be a fool.

The mind is the master of knowledge, but wisdom owes its allegiance to the heart. 

When you think of wisdom, there's a warmth in your mind. When you speak wise words, there's love on your tongue. When you do something wise, there's a silent applause all around you.

Wisdom is inversely proportional to Ego.

A lot of deep, reflective thinking goes into filling your cup of wisdom. But this thinking cannot be forced, only attempted from time to time. And only when it is mixed with personal experience and empathy does it become a few more drops of wisdom. No matter how much we work at it, the cup is never full and seldom empty. Thankfully.


Thank you for reading this post or visiting the Strings of the Soul link. Wish you all a Happy Happy New Year 2016!

Sunday, October 4, 2015

6 Best Practices for E-commerce CXOs and Developers



Over the past few weeks, I have spoken to a few senior IT decision makers from e-tail, retail and other industry segments where e-commerce is becoming the new business magnet. Alongside, I have also flipped through tons of content on what makes or mars the prospects of an e-commerce firm.

The result: this blog post you are going through right now. What I have done is distilled some industry best practices and do’s and don’ts that can be helpful for e-tail newbies as well as fast-growing e-commerce sites. Given that there’s little spare time for people working in this realm, here you go:

Aim for simplicity: Designing a user interface is a highly evolved discipline now. All the same, it is the online users who are the most evolved of species! Which is why keeping the UX simple yet elegant, rich yet devoid of unnecessary complexity, appealing and vibrant without being gaudy or over-the-top is more important than ever. What is the one thing that strikes us about a Google or Apple product? Its simple yet amazing user design, isn’t it?

Ensure easy site navigation: Many of the high-traffic e-commerce sites today boast of millions of products across hundreds or even thousands of product categories and sub-categories. One key thumb rule in designing navigation is that the user should not be made to click too many times (some call it the three-click rule) or find it too difficult to locate a product. Site search, in this context, is extremely important. GetElastic.com, a popular e-commerce blog, points out that even the biggest of e-com sites often fall flat in optimizing site search. It says: “Site visitors that use search boxes are more likely to know specifically what they want and are closer to conversion than those just browsing.”

It goes on to suggest that the merchandising team must anticipate variations in how consumers might be looking for certain things; for instance, they can type “two piece bathing suit”, “2-piece bathing suit”, or “2 piece bathing suit” (without the hyphen). Unless search dictionaries or tools accommodate such “correct misspellings” (in addition to commonly misspelt terms and synonyms), the potential buyers might be disappointed with search results.

Choose your e-commerce platform carefully: With hundreds of tools that let you set up an online shop, it’s a crowded market out there. For those who wish to play safe and do not have too much time researching or experimenting with options, going with an established platform such as Shopify, Magento or ZenCart makes ample sense. For the more adventurous, there are plenty of tools to fiddle with. The site www.ecommerce-platforms.com has even put up a comparison chart of some such tools available in the market. Among the things one should look out for in an e-com platform: availability of hosted/self-hosted environments, payment options supported, stock size (for which you want to build the e-store), credible case studies in a given industry segment, etc.

Look out for mobile-best customer experience: In this age of ubiquitous mobility, it would be foolhardy to ignore the significance of an optimum mobile user experience. Whether it is achieved through a mobile app or responsive web design (in which the same code can cater to multiple device types), a less-than-superlative experience that can be delivered on a majority of popular mobile handsets just wouldn’t do.

Test, test, test, and then test some more: We are living in a connected, socially hyperactive age. One in which customers go all out to tweet, post, share and shriek bad customer experiences from the rooftops. So it is always better to thoroughly test any new piece of code or feature before rolling it out to a million potential customers who will be exposed to it within minutes. The DevOps movement can indeed meet its full potential in the fast-paced world of e-commerce.

Ignore shipping and fulfillment at your own peril: In the nascent but burgeoning e-com market in India, it is not uncommon to find so many negative tales of shipments gone wrong. According to Richard Lazazzera, a leading e-commerce expert who runs an online e-commerce incubator deliciously named A Better Lemonade Stand, “Many new ecommerce entrepreneurs either don’t give much thought to shipping their products, or rightfully so, don’t understand the confusing and complex world of shipping and fulfillment.” (Read this blog post of his that talks about packaging, resources such as courier services, tracking & insurance, and apps to help make the whole process easier. The scenario in India may not be as mature as the advanced markets of USA or Canada, but some useful inferences can be drawn or lessons learned from e-com ecosystem players operating there.)

In the next couple of years, e-commerce will have come into its own as an established segment of industry in India. While the broadest market may turn out to be a case of the proverbial three-horse race (or four horses, perhaps), scores of mid-size and niche players in e-tailing will prove their mettle. Soon, the fight would stop being about funds and customer acquisitions; instead, the attention would shift to technology-led differentiation, profitability and customer retention.

And that’s where the players that implement the best practices and treat customers as the center of their universe will stand out from the crowd.

(This blog post first appeared on www.DynamicCIO.com.) 

Friday, September 18, 2015

5 Ways CIOs Can Transform Their Companies into Data-Driven Enterprises



Data, data everywhere—not just the right kind to make effective decisions! It wouldn’t be wrong to assume that this is the common lament in most enterprise decision-making circles today.

On the one hand, companies are drowning in an unprecedented flood of data, structured as well as unstructured. And, on the other, CIOs, CMOs and other CXOs are struggling to get a handle on all that data, put it into the right perspective, extract and massage it into a usable form and take quick, effective decisions. The ones that can earn their firm the much-prized moniker of an agile business or a data-driven enterprise.

While making decisions in any enterprise involves a whole battalion of executives, LOB heads, managers, supervisors and many others, I think the job of enabling the whole organization to take decisions based on analytics rather than hunches (and perhaps, lunches) is most suited to the CIO. The reason is simple: who else has an across-the-board view of the data ecosystem of the company? And that too with the additional knowhow of how the information systems work (or can be made to work)?

So, without further ado, here are five ways CIOs can enable an environment for adaptive, data-led decision making in their organizations:

Making speed count: I know one thing for sure: organizations of all stripes today collect all sorts of data. Through all sorts of forms. By making innumerable number of calls to customers and prospects. And by sources such as the usual enterprise data captured through ERP and other operational systems. But how fast are you with the data you collect? Does it lie buried into file cabinets or dusty disks? Simply putting the data to quick use can make a huge difference to the organization. Following up on a hot lead in quick succession of the data collection process, for instance, will translate into revenue; too much delay, on the other hand, will make the prospect turn to your competitors.

Knowing your data from your metrics: This may sound simple to some and unnecessarily complicated to others. Yet this article on the Harvard Business Review site illustrates the difference and the significance of the difference quite clearly. Authors Jeff Bladt and Bob Filbin cite in the article the example of a YouTube video, asking the reader to guess as to how many views would qualify a video as a success. Now, the particular video in question had garnered 1.5 million views but it failed to do what it was supposed to do: encourage young people to donate their used sports goods. So, despite the impressive views, only eight viewers signed up for donation—with zero finally making the donation!

Not all results (or metrics) will turn out to be in such low extremes. But the point is well-made: you need to specify clear metrics in any data collection or numbers related exercise that will reliably give the true measure of success for the initiative.

Data is data is data, right? Wrong: When data is to be put at the heart of decision-making in an enterprise, it matters all the more that the data be accurate, consistent and timely. So, one may be under the impression that all the data required for a project, say, a marketing campaign, is available, if the data quality is not up to the mark, the results of the campaign would certainly be below expectations.

According to a data quality study by Experian Information Solutions, 32% of U.S. organizations believe their data to be inaccurate and further, 91% of respondents believe that revenue is affected by inaccurate data in terms of wasted resources, lost productivity, or wasted marketing and communications spend. If that’s the case with such a data-rich economy, one could imagine how bad the shape of things would be in a country like India, where data collection and research are relatively new fields and far from being mature scientific disciplines. In this context, the need for best practices as well as tech tools in maintaining high data quality cannot be over-emphasized.

Democratization of analytics: How many of you can remember the era of generating sporadic MIS reports for the consumption of the privileged few? Well, that era is long gone. However, most companies are still chary of sharing key statistics or analytics data beyond the confines of top or senior mid-management. But gradually, this state of affairs, too, is set for a bold change. Some call the coming wave as the democratization of data or analytics, in which actionable data percolates to the lowest links in the organizational hierarchy.

Having said that, democratizing data does not mean dropping a huge spreadsheet on everyone’s desk and saying, “good luck,” as Kris Hammond, Chief Scientist at Narrative Science points out in this article. On the contrary, he explains what it involves simply and emphatically: “Democratization requires that we provide people with an easy way to understand the data. It requires sharing information in a form that everyone can read and understand. It requires timely communication about what is happening in a relevant and personal way. It means giving people the stories that are trapped in the data so they can do something with the information.”

Point well made: unless people can take “informative action,” the analytics tools or the extracted data will have little value for the people or the organization.

Analyzed this, have ya? Now visualize that, too: I’m not sure if you noticed but the Internet has been flooded with a new tool of information dissemination in the past couple of years. It’s called the infographic. For most of your searches on Google, there are now an eye-load of infographics, those illustrative diagrams that give you the needed information with icons, pictures, graphs and anything non-text.

Much less noticeable but equally important, a similar movement is underway within enterprises in the context of data analytics. Vendors such as Tableau Software and Qlik Technologies are leading the charge in this emerging segment, referred to as the visual analytics market

According to specialist consulting firm Atheon Analytics, visual analytics “brings together computer science, information visualization, cognitive and perceptual sciences, interactive design, graphic design, and social sciences.” (To see the power of visualized data in action, watch this slightly old but enormously impactful video, the Joy of Stats, of Swedish statistician Hans Rosling, who is often referred to as the “Jedi master of data visualization.”)

The above are only a few of the multiple ways in which CIOs can bring the hidden power of data to the forefront of organizational ability and agility. There are plenty of tools and technologies available but each organization must find its own best-fit path to data-driven success. The key is to start the data journey as early as possible and do so in right earnest.