Disclaimer Generation

This is my opinion, based on my research and preferences. You should do your own, to figure out, yours.

I overheard a young man say this to his father last weekend. Somehow, it just stuck inside my mind, and kept coming back. Today morning, I thought about it a little more. I stepped back, and realised that, I do this too. With family, with friends, with colleagues, with everybody. Step back yourself, and think for just a minute, on how you respond, when someone asks you for an opinion.

We are currently a generation, which gives opinions and recommendations, only with disclaimers. We are afraid of telling it as what it is. We are afraid of people coming back and saying – “you said so.”. I don’t remember it being so hesitant, when I was growing up. There are so many things, that I have done, because I trusted someone’s opinion, went to them, asked for the opinion, and just did exactly this.

Now, where am I coming to, with this? Is this a bad thing? Probably not. The newer generation is becoming more aware. They are making more informed decisions. However, I am just a little sad, that the trust factor is diminishing. Every time, I say, “This is my opinion, you should also do your checks”, it kind of feels like, I am washing it off of me.

What do you guys think?

Pride and Joy

img src: https://www.pexels.com/photo/adult-apple-device-business-code-340152/

As a leader, the two most important things you can gift your team is pride and joy. Your team should enjoy their work and feel pride in what they worked on. These are the two fundamental premises that I base leadership on. If you are able to enable this for your team, you are a good leader.

Most other leadership traits and good working environments are derived from this base. Let us take a couple of examples, and see.

  • Great teams pour their heart out into building cool stuff. Have we all not realized that, we put in our best effort if we enjoy what we are doing?
  • Growth – Most folks grow in their career paths when they accomplish significant milestones. I measure milestones by impact. And people realize significant impact that they are making, when they feel proud. Pride swells when you accomplish more and more.

It is a cyclic process too. When you enjoy the work you do, you achieve more, feel pride, which makes you reinforce the joy in your work.

What do I look for, when I hire.

img src: https://vimeo.com/62395898

Interviews are a shot in the dark. You never know the state of the candidate on that one date, and deciding his fate based on how he solves a certain analytical problem, has never seemed the right thing to me.

What they have done earlier: I always ask about one project that the candidate has done in her previous work experience that she is most comfortable with. I ask the candidate, to then, go in depth, and explain to me. There are a few things that I can assess from this question:

  • Depth of knowledge: While knowledge of depth first trees and red-black trees are important, what I feel is more important, is how they have applied this knowledge. I go deep and probe into the problem, assessing, how deep the candidate has understood the problem, and the involvement with which it was solved.
  • Applied problem solving: How was the problem solved? You can test, how the candidate has applied existing algorithm techniques, or data structures to solve this problem. I ask “why so?” and “why not?” questions to see if the candidate took these decisions in an informed manner, or was she just implementing what she was told.
  • Big picture: I typically ask, where the particular piece that was developed new, or fixed, goes in the large product, or project. This gives me an idea as to how much the engineer is focused on the larger picture. The great candidates would know exactly ‘why’ they are fixing a problem, or developing a new feature.
  • Customer empathy: Yes. Every project has a customer. It might be external, or internal, but everything has an end-user. A developer in another team, consuming your API is a consumer too. I ask questions on how the candidate kept the consumer in mind. You get a lot from this question.
  • Communication skills: Was the candidate able to explain to me in a structured, lucid manner, about the problem, and how it was solved? I place very high importance in this facet. This is not to be confused with presentation skills. I do not expect engineers to be brilliant presenters (they are a few, I know of, though!). But, they should be able to communicate well enough to QA, PM, Design, and management. Else, there is huge productivity wasted here.

Attitude towards learning: Let us all agree, that, there is no one who knows everything. No one. So the best candidate, to me, is one, who realises this, and has an open slate to learn anything that is required, to do her job efficiently. There are a few ways by which I gauge this. I ask how much the candidate has learnt in the recent past. I ask about good projects and bad projects in recent past. I look for, if the candidate mentions her learnings on good and bad projects. I ask if something completely greenfield is thrown at the candidate, what would she do? Her structured methodology to crack it. I look for google, quora, online MOOCs etc.

Team player: While this seems cliche, I place a lot of important in this. I observe the candidate keenly on behavioural aspects. I ask questions such as, how the interactions with other teams such as QA, Design, PMs are? I seed sly questions such as – “These designers just don’t get technology, do they?” and observe. If there is one thing that I cannot tolerate, it is jerks. There is no place for brilliant jerks on my team. Sorry, cannot tolerate it. I will take a week more, with a slightly lesser brilliant engineer, but I would rather have fun doing it. Life is short. I want the engineer, and the team, to have pride in what they built, and jerks hamper this beautiful emotion.

Thinking process (PM interviews): I usually toss in a large green field project, such as “Growth for a Boutique Online Coffee Roasting Company”. I give the PM a few minutes alone. Once back, we work through the scenario together. I gauge structured thinking process here. I see how the PMs are making assumptions and communicating to me. I watch how the PMs react to suggestions from me. Is she accepting everything I am saying? Is she contradicting appropriately? If so, how is the dialog? Prodded deep enough, you check attitude here as well. I can sense condescension from a mile away.

I was thinking about all this today morning, and I thought, it would be good if penned these down here as well. I have been using these techniques for more than a decade for interviewing folks, and to a large extent, hit success. Sure, there were a few misses, but then, like I said, interviews are a shot in the dark. In the case of misses, you just need to realise it quickly and rectify.

Why not Store Trucks?

(image source: http://decisivecravings.com.au/grocery-shopping-for-good/)

The food trucks are slowly showing up on Indian streets. People are opening up to eat gourmet or exotic (or sometimes even normal) street food out of a truck.

There is one thing that I have not seen yet on Indian streets, which I am thinking, might just work. The daily staple/grocery value chain is growing on a fairly healthy rate. The unhealthy or unplanned players have fallen (or falling). The two or three giants are innovating and moving forward.

The value chain started off with hyper-local. Guys like Grofers or Amazon Kirana, take orders from customers, purchase the goods from your local kirana shop and deliver it home. People did warm up to this idea, but was not that wildly successful. Then of course, the concept of Amazon Pantry is slowly taking shape in the country as well. You can buy everything from your tooth paste, to mustard seeds online through either of the big online retailers – the key mindshare is on Amazon and BigBasket now.

My proposal is somewhere in the middle, is where the Indian market place can really boom. This is where you will understand why I mentioned food trucks at the beginning of this article. Why not trucks with store-branded staples strategically positioned at different points. I have seen this with pop-up trucks selling vegetables, but this could very well work for staples as well.

Reasons why this might just work:

  • Online grocery ordering is a very planned activity, where you sit down and think, and look at your pantry, and decide what to top-up for the month. In my personal experience, invariably, every time after I have finished ordering from big basket, I always end up with 2-3 items that I might have missed.
  • There are always staples that might last you until half of next month, and you end up buying more stuff ‘just in case’. “Just-in-time” inventory would be perfect here, but we do not want to do this online thing at the last moment. What if, I do not get the immediate slot. What if, the item I am order is not available in Express delivery (90 min).
  • With the urban household in India, there is a significant population which travels using company provided transportation. A significant portion of this (and the rest of the) population living in housing societies, apartment complexes and the likes.
  • “On your way back from work, please get …..” is a very oft heard phrase in India urbania.
  • Store trucks with the most basic staples such as rice, wheat, lentils, spices, instant foods, would be the right middle point to be able to achieve the above task.

I wonder if BigBasket or Amazon is listening?

Inference and Insights

This came up in a recent meeting with the Product team at work. We were talking about data and how in recent times, we have gotten a ton of it. We were also talking about how some of this data was actionable, and some was just there. In some areas, data was just becoming very hairy and unmanageable.

We spoke about Inferences vs Insights.

Inferences: You look at all your data. You crunch what you require. You ignore/delete what does not matter to you. You separate out key metrics and secondary metrics.

Insights: These are trends and patterns that you spot in your inferences. You then distill them, cross-reference them, and derive insights out of them. Because of a drop in metric x1, and a corresponding metric x2, the resulting derived metric had a double increase to x3. Add to it, seasonal variations, of a corresponding period in the last year, you get an insight as to whether what you have ‘built’ has been worth it or not.

Getting inferences is more or less a science, but distilling insights is almost an art. It takes experience, and an open perspective to effectively derive insights.

Insights also serve another purpose. They serve as basis for hypothesis, and experiments. You get insights using a subset of data, for a period of time, which leads you to make a hypothesis, which in turn you experiment for a different period of time (or a different subset of data), to prove it.

The above was the effective crux of the discussion that we had, and I thought this might be valuable as food-for-thought (if not anything else), for the few folks who read my blog. 

img src: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/big-data-insights-found-unexpected-places-austin-wentzlaff

December trip to Chikmagalur

Well, it has been a long time since I blogged (super busy at work is the excuse this time), and what better than a travelogue to pump up things around here. 

Technically, the destination is not Chikmagalur per se, it is a coffee estate resort called “The Eagle Eye Holiday Home” about 42 km from Chikmagalur town, on the Malandur Road (for those in the know of all things Western Ghats!).

  • Friday evening – Left Bangalore at 3:05PM – had to pick up the kiddo from school.
  • Route from Koramangala:
    • Koramangala -> Madiwala (through whatever short cut that pleases you)
    • Madiwala -> Hosur Road (you will get hosed in traffic whatever you do)
    • Exit on to NICE road (It was 4PM by now)
    • Surprised (in a bad way) to see so much traffic on NICE road. Had never seen so much traffic on this road before. Trucker traffic mostly.
    • Head past Bannerghatta Road, Kanakapura Road, Mysore Road, Magadi Road and exit out of Tumkur Road
    • Pay Rs.20 toll for a road that does not feel like a toll road
    • Left at Nelamangala towards Hassan (It was 5PM by now)
    • Nelamangala to Hassan is a fantastic road. (Read: you can touch 130kmph at multiple points) – four lane highway with divider
    • Hassan to Chikmagalur is a two lane highway with no divider
    • In winter, when it got dark very quickly, our speed kicked several notches lower past Hassan.
    • Was 8PM by the time we reached Chikmagalur
  • Checked in to Planters Court in Chikmagalur
    • This is a simple medium cost hotel if you just want to plonk for the night, which was what we did.
  • Left early in the morning (7AM) and started driving towards Eagle Eye Resorts
    • The road from Chikmagalur to Eagle Eye is just awesome.
    • Highly advisable not to do in the night though. Absolutely no markers, or sign boards anywhere. It is just coffee plantations everywhere and nothing else.
    • It takes a good 1 hour 20 minutes to reach.
    • The last 1.5-2km is a mud-road that leads into the estate.
  • The resort itself:
    • Beautiful place in the middle of a coffee estate
    • Apparently started off as a homestay, but now gradually moving to a full scale resort
    • The place is permanently full. So book in advance.
    • There are a few types of rooms
      • We stayed in a villa – which is just a plain large bedroom with an equally large bathroom, and a fantastic sit-out with a view.
      • There are waterfall villas, with a simulated water fall inside the room, which is turned on for a few hours a day
      • There are glass house with pool rooms. These have a large glass facade wall with a view from the beds, and a small pool in the sit-out
      • There are other types of small cottages as well.
    • There are no TVs in the rooms, nor is there room service.
      • The manager lady explained to me that this was very intentional, because, as an eco resort, they want their guests to experience the outdoors. If there is a TV or room service, people rarely get out of their room.
      • The dining area is a fair distance apart from each of the rooms. Beautiful view from the dining area too.
      • Simple buffer breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The tariff is all inclusive.
    • The resort arranges a nice 3km (round trip) trek to a peak inside the estate. It is a moderately intensive trek, but the there of us (including my 7 y/o) was able to do it.
    • The Bhadra National Game Reserve is about 21km away (about 45 minutes drive). We drove down there. The park rangers take you on a park safari. We saw some small game (peacocks, wild boar, langoors, stag, and spotted deer).
    • About 10km away from the resort is a small temple (Markandeya temple) on the banks of the River Bhadra. Very scenic spot.
  • Overall the resort is so serene and full of outdoor activities, that the 2.5 days that we spent over there, flew by at a perfectly acceptable pace. It was neither too fast, nor too slow. One of those holidays that you walk away from, thinking that it was very well spent.
  • If you are one of those, who corrupt your coffee with chicory, then you can buy some powder in the resort itself, but if you are like me, who likes their coffee “pure”, skip it.
  • We drove down to Chikmagalur on Monday morning, right after breakfast. Stop by Panduranga Coffee Works on MG Road in Chikmagalur, if you want some awesome coffee. I bought some roasted beans for our coffee machine at office, and some powder for home. Pure Arabica. Hmmmm.
  • Came back at a good clip back to Bangalore. Chikmagalur to Nelamangala (about 4 hours). Stopped for lunch at Kamat at Chennarayapatna (abbreviated as C.R.Patna everywhere). There is also an A2b right opposite, if that is your taste – but you would need to do a long round about and a U turn if you want to get there).
  • And *sigh*, of course, got stuck in traffic on Hosur Road. Spent almost an hour and a half on that same road.

 

 

The flip side of convenience

(pic-courtesy: mid-day.com)
(pic-courtesy: mid-day.com)

I had earlier written about how hyperlocal grocery delivery folks were affecting the ‘other folks’ who were actually shopping in the super markets. Some of these ‘delivery’ experts were super aggressive in picking up items before us and were trying to beat the lines etc. So while folks who found it convenient to order through them, there were some inconvenience to the others who actually did shop physically.

While one might think that this is an isolated industry and incident, two similar incidents happened to me recently involving two separate companies/industries.

Food delivery: Last week, I stopped by Taco Bell (Sony world, Koramangala, if you must know), to pick up something on the go. I had ordered from the cashiers. There was hardly any crowd. But I waited for a good 15 minutes, because there were three swiggy orders queued up asynchronously in front of me. Yesterday we went to Anand Sweets (Purani Dilli, Koramangala 5th block, again, if you must know :)). We went to eat in. We had ordered just chaat. The food pick up here is by token. I was token number 52, and the running number was 49. Usually, this would have been about 5 mins, but again, it took me a good 20 minutes. Why? Two swiggy ordes again. And again, because it was delivery, it took time to pack. And to ‘beat’ the minimum order for free delivery threshold, folks typically order more. Boom. Double Whammy.

Radio cabs: Today evening, a radio cab almost ran into me. Why? He was busy trying to talk to a customer on the phone trying to understand where to pick him up, look up the same on his map on the phone app, and steer the dang car. Quite naturally, he was doing all three actions sub-optimally.

So now what? Now I am not being the luddite cribbing against technology advances. All I am saying is, are these companies thinking enough about this problem. Should the companies care only about their direct customer satisfaction? Or should they also look at their impact on society, as a bigger picture.

I am sure there are solutions. For the radio cabs problem, this is a solved problem in the US. The geo- problem is solved beautifully there. You call, and the uber is in front of you. No hailing. No telling landmarks. Nothing. I am sure our guys can improve this too.

As for the food delivery problem, one thing that I noticed was that, the guys started preparing the food only after the guy came to the restaurant, while they actually had gotten the order much earlier. Could they do some form of predictive start? I, as a consumer, know where the delivery guy is and how close he is to reaching the restaurant. Can’t swiggy share this out to the restaurant also?

What does everyone think?

Feel the pain – Customer Service Insight

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Some of you guys might know that I have been working in the ecommerce space for the last few months. I work as a product manager in one of the top travel sites in India. One thing that has struck home hard is the importance of effective customer service. Every day, there are a handful of customer experiences that would escalate up to me.

  • Some of these would be customers who have made errors by themselves.
  • Some of them would be UX ambiguities because of which the customers made mistakes.
  • Some of them would be truly bugs in the system.

But at the end of the day, there is one key tenet, that my team and I try to follow. If it has been analyzed as either of the last two buckets – which means, we were responsible, in some way or the other – be it directly or indirectly, we process the customer first, with the least pain as feasible.

We then, go and root cause, and analyze the bug or improve the UX to make it less ambiguous. The customer should never be left hanging. The customer would never have to write back to us (or call us) unnecessarily again and again. Well, some of these happen, but we try really hard to avoid these situations.

Why am I writing this post, out of the blue, now? I had a really painful customer service experience a couple of weeks ago. This was with one of the self drive cab rent companies (yeah, the one with the burgundy cars). Let me tell you the story, and you figure out yourself.

Saturday afternoon: We have this idea to rent an XUV for a ride. I have never driven one, and my six year old also was super excited about this. So we decide to rent one the following day (Sunday) evening. However, instead of booking for Sunday evening, I mistakenly booked for Saturday evening (same day) – entirely my mistake. The pick up was from SonyWorld Signal, Koramangala.

Few minutes later, after I get all the SMS and email confirmations, I realize my mistake. From experience, I know that, calling customer service up is the best way to make amendments.

I call up customer service. The gentleman on the line was very helpful. He said he would definitely be able to move it to the next day. However, he ‘regretfully’ told me that, an XUV was not available in the Koramangala lot, but is available in the Garuda Mall lot. I was ok with it, since it is barely 2-3km from my home. And I thought, that was the end of it.

Sunday afternoon – a few hours before the rental time. I get an SMS stating that my XUV was ready at the garuda mall lot, and is waiting for me. I was, ofcourse, super excited.

We drove down to the Garuda mall basement. The attendant over there saw my SMS, which even had the vehicle number, and ‘regretfully’ said that, the booking does not show in his ‘app’. He added for good measure, that the vehicle number mentioned did not even belong to his lot.

This was when it struck me to open up the app and check the booking history. And lo, behold, the booking history said – Koramangala lot.

I called up customer support again and explained to the gentleman on the line that I got an SMS for a different lot, and the app says a different one, and the attendant says he cannot give me a car. He says that he needs to escalate it to a different team and he will call back.

By this time, 20 minutes had rolled past. The wife and kid were uncomfortably seated on 2 moulded plastic chairs in the humid basement of the Garuda mall, with me pacing like a lion which had been fed nothing!

5 minutes past, another gentleman calls me from customer service, and ofcourse, I had to relate the entire story to him. And now comes the exact moment, when ‘he gets my goat’! He tells me, to screenshot the sms and email to him.

I got furious by this time (and ofcourse, I am reminded of all the emails I get from our customer service team about how irate a customer is!), and ask him very politely however, how anyone standing in the middle of a road (or in the middle of a basement ramp, in my case) would be able to screenshot and send something. And what if the customer does not know how to screenshot in an android phone (which I had only learned just recently!).

The person on the other line listened patiently, but had no response. And then he says, a car has been despatched from electronic city lot to here, and should reach me in 5 minutes, and that there were no others cars in the lot.

  1. Unless you are air-lifting the vehicle, there is no way in this city, where you can get a car from Electronic City to Garuda Mall, in 5 minutes. Be practical.
  2. I saw 2 XUVs standing right ahead of me.

I resolutely held on, and asked him to give the phone to his manager. I asked him why he could not transfer one of the XUVs in front of me to my reservation, and change the electronic city XUV to someone else. Here, I was trying to solve a problem for them. Pch.

45 minutes later, I get an XUV, and we ride out, thinking, we will never use this service again. That is the power of ‘bad customer service’.

With that story out of the way, I have reinforced to my team, and to our CRM team, that in no way, should we, as a company, ever put the customer on hold, if there is even a slightest problem from our end. We should resolve the issue at the customer end, move him on, and then later debug, fix, or whatever.

Map trace by mobile

I have been thinking about this for a while. And yes, this is one of my dream product posts – there might be hints of technology possibility inside, but no means an algorithm. I will spell out a couple of use cases first.

Use case1: I hail an uber from home. The pickup location is picked up either through physical GPS on the device or by wifi triangulation. Now that is passed to Uber for pickup. Now, let us say, I take my phone, and walk to the end of my road, to the main road. I want to be picked up from there, because there is too much traffic inside my side road. Uber cannot be notified of that. Can uber triangulate to my phone and locate me?

Use case2: I call customer support for fixing my washing machine. Ideally, there should be one final question from the customer support representative – “Can I send the technician to the place where this phone is?” The system should figure out the address and send the technician.

There are several more use cases where this could help. There are obviously privacy concerns here, but there must be someway to fix that problem. I have been facing this issue so many times in recent times, giving directions to people, when they should just be able to locate me.

Ooty Road-trip Oct 2 weekend 2015

General trip notes:
  • Mostly the roads were good – except for a short stretch from Mysore to Nanjangud – where there is road widening that is happening. Once this is finished, the road should be fully done.
  • I took the Masinagudi route to/from Ooty – this is the 36 hairpin bend short route. The road in this stretch is also awesome.
  • The road inside the Bandipur sanctuary has been freshly laid and is really good.
  • On our way to Ooty, we passed by the Bandipur area around 6PM. Looks like this is a great time to spot animals. Spotted hordes of bison, deer, and peacock.
  • On our way back, the traffic was horrendous. All of Bangalore was returning from the long weekend.
  • Do not miss the wood fired pizza at Nahar Side walk cafe. Their multi-cuisine restaurant – Chandan – is also pretty good. Both are pure vegetarian.
  • The Sterling Elk Hill property has undergone massive renovation and looks super posh inside. They are adding more rooms as well.
  • On the way back, if you want to fill gas, there is a bunk, right at the beginning of the Mysore road (from Ooty).
  • If you want to avoid the maddening crowds of Ooty, and want a relaxing drive, drive down the road towards Kundha/Upper Bhavani. The Emerald lake is just an awesome vista point.
  • If you want to have lunch in Mysore, but do not want to go into the city, there is a Kamat Madhuvan, just near the Mysore bypass.