Abstracting Complexity as a PM Skill

One of my recent favourite PM interview questions is to pick a technical term that the candidate has thrown around casually while describing their previous experience; and ask them to describe what that means (or how it works) to someone non-technical. Yesterday I had asked a candidate to explain kafka to me, and another to make me understand monoliths vs microservices.

This helps me evaluate three important PM skills (esp Platform PMs) – the ability to abstract out complexity, bring clarity and the ability to communicate it based on the audience. This really tests the candidates mettle in all these three areas. I give them time to compose their ideas and then explain to me.

An added bonus is – you will also know if they are just throwing around tech terms without understanding them. If they are truthful and acknowledge this, I give them another chance to pick any technical (or deep expertise) areas on their own.

Kashmir Travelogue – Apr 2024

Kashmir is just an amazing place that one has to visit. No wonder the persian poet Amir Khusro wrote – “If there is a paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here.”

As always, this travelogue will give the detailed day to day plan that we followed with my comments in between; followed by some tips/important things to note; and finally contact numbers etc. This trip was coordinated by Deepika, a travel planner, who was recommended to me by a close colleague (who had a good experience with her recently).

Day 1: We left in the evening flight of Thursday (last day of school for kiddo) to Delhi. Reached pretty late due to a delayed flight (as always because of late arrival of incoming aircraft). Had booked at Bloomrooms at GK2 in Delhi. I am a big fan of the simple elegance of Bloomrooms (since my regular travel to Gurgaon during my travenues days).

Day 2: Had awesome complimentary breakfast at bloom. Did a one day sight seeing tour of Delhi. While my wife and me had lived in NCR for about 4 years long time back, my son had not been there. And he has been studying quite a bit of Delhi in history, geography, civics etc. So did the usual rounds – Lotus temple, Qutub Minar, India Gate, the new war memorial, Red fort complex, and finally Raj ghat (in that order). Had an awesome lunch at Haldirams Pandara Road. Airport pickup, drop, and the sightseeing was arranged by Deepika as well. This was the first time I had gone into the Red fort complex. It is HUGE. Dinner was at the nearby Bikanerwala at GK2.

Day 3: Caught the morning flight to Srinagar. Had breakfast at the airport.

We were picked up from the airport by our driver Riyaz Bhai, who would be our driving companion for the next 6 days in Kashmir. He was a soft, endearing and helpful person. (contacts below).

There was a slight mix up in the hotel stay for that day, but was very soon fixed by our very able travel planner, Deepika (contacts below). Be very careful about booking, and reconfirming hotel stays during peak seasons. We landed at Hotel Elaf Residency, but was told that they had only one night, but we needed two. We were swiftly shifted to Hotel Rose Petal. While this hotel was slightly off the main market area and slightly old, the rooms were good, well furnished, and the food was very good.

Srinagar sightseeing: We first covered the tulip garden. This was the highlight of the day. The tulip garden is open only for 3-4 weeks every year, and the bloom is just brilliant.

We then went to the Shankaracharya temple on top of a hill. The car gets to a certain point, and you have to cover 200 steps to the temple. It is a Shiva temple, where Adi Shankara meditated. Beautiful temple and a small cave shrine where he meditated. View of Srinagar and the Jhelum river from up here is awesome. There was some renovation going on when we went. There is a small walk from the car drop off point to the steps. If you feel tired, there will be autos that can drop you off for 150/-.

We then went on a Shikara ride on the Dal Lake. Its a slow paddle ride along the lake, where several vendors on other boats come and sell stuff like Kahwa tea (which I had, and was awesome by the way!!), flowers, jewelery, dress-up-like-kashmiri-and-take-photo etc. They take you to a floating market near the lake, show you the houseboats etc. Its a nice experience. You can also get some snacks in this floating market like French fries, maggi etc.

Lunch was at Raja Dhaba near the gardens. We had mentioned that we would prefer pure vegetarian places enroute – which is a toughie in Kashmir. We are usually ok with veg+non-veg food in larger establishments. Hence, breakfast and dinner was not a problem. The only pure veg places are Dhabas, and as everyone knows food in these places are unpredictable. They can be awesome or just so-so. Raja Dhaba was only so-so. There were many other gardens like the Mughal gardens, which we skipped.

Day 4 was supposed to be Sonmarg, but there had been an avalanche that had blocked the road to Sonmarg the day before. Thankfully Riyaz bhai had gotten this news through this driver friend network. While the road clearing work had been done, the traffic had increased significantly on that road, and Riyaz suggesed Doodhpathri as an alternate day trip location.

Doodhpathri is about 2 hours drive from Srinagar. As most places are, this is yet another valley with beautiful views and some pockets of snow (in early April). Doodhpathri is called so because in days of yore, a muslim saint had come by this place and struck the ground, and found water as pure and white as milk.

You can rent heavy jackets and boots here. You can purchase waterproof socks and gloves if you want as well. Your driver will take you here and recommend. Highly recommend you follow the suggestion of your driver in these. It costed us 450/- per person for boot + jacket.

Tourists are taken on a pony ride to a few viewing / experience spots. About an hour and half or so. There are a few ‘points’ that you stop at, take photographs, play in the snow, and view a rapid/river on the way. In most of these ‘points’ there were small shops selling kahwa, tea, maggi.

Note: We succumbed to a scam here. There was a photographer dude, who offered to come with us throughout the ride and take photographs of us during the entire time. His original rate was 40/- bucks for every photo we select and 50/- for every video. He did not tell us of any minimum number of photos. And we missed asking him. He came with us for the entire ride, and when we selected about 10-15 pics, he said that is not possible. He expected at least 4-5K. Thankfully with the help of Riyaz Bhai, got out of the very angry altercation by paying 2K/-. This was mainly due to a miscommunication. Riyaz bhai had told me at the last moment to give some tips to the horse men. At just that moment, the camera guy also had made an appearance and I misunderstood Riyaz’s point to be for the camera guy. We got into a big problem because we thought Riyaz was asking us to help/tip the camera guy. Be wary and confirm everything twice with your driver companion, if you are not clear, and choose what you want.

One of the horsemen was a cute young kid. Hatim was his name. All of 11 years of age. He was studying 5th grade. He does trips during the weekends. The pony I was riding on was his, and its name was Toofan. Hatim proudly told me that he rides Toofan every day after school. Such a heart warming moment, and a world so different from the one we live in.

Riyaz suggested that we should have lunch at a road side shack on the way back, which made only makki roti and sarson ka saag. He said we would never have tasted something like that before. I agreed with that sentiment, while wife and kiddo thought it was only ok-ok. Was a bit oily, and the oil had questionable freshness. But for me, this changed my opinion of makki roti and sarson ka saag – which I had hated until then, and thought was overhyped.

Dinner was back at Rose petal. Good clean buffet food.

Day 5: We checked out of Rose petal and started towards our most anticipated place – Gulmarg – the valley of flowers. Wherever we travelled between places in Kashmir, we saw so many fields of mustard with their bright yellow flowers.

The road to Gulmarg is so beautiful. Gives a full European vacation feel. So pretty.

We need to rent boots and heavy jackets here as well. Recommend to follow driver suggestions on where to get. It costed us 350/- per person for boot + jacket.

We checked into Hotel Green Park. Its a decent hotel, not as good as some others, we are told. But we were lucky to get this one, given high season. We did not complain. Its a quaint little inn type hotel. Slightly old. The location is amaze max though. Its in the middle of nowhere with snow all round.

Right after checking in, we left to the Gondola area, where Riyaz introduced us to Altaf, who was going to be our ‘guide’ for all activities in Gulmarg. Deepika had already purchased tickets for the Gondola Phase 1 and Phase 2 rides. These are two stages of the Gondola ride. This is apparently Asia’s highest Gondola ride. Phase 1 has a lot of activities like sking, snow scooter riding, and sledge riding. We did all three. These are paid, and need to be booked there. Our guide helped us ‘negotiate’.

Phase 2 is more of a view point. This is the highest point in that area, and also very close to the Indian border. You can see several Indian border outposts from this place.

On the advice of Altaf bhai, instead of taking the ‘sane’ path back using the Gondola ride, we took a sledge ride down from Phase 1 to base. If you have a weak back like me, avoid. Yikes. Every bone in my body creaked. But was it FUN or what !! The sledge driver sits in front of you and navigates. You pass through some breath taking scenery and you get to play in the snow as well. You need to pay Altaf Bhai for his services too.

To get back to the hotel from the base, we had to take a union cab. (Regular cabs are not allowed to take people to/from base to other places). Somehow Riyaz had managed to drop us off in the morning. You have to pay for the union cab drop. It was evening by the time, we reached back to the hotel. We were done for the day. Since we had snow all around us, we had some time to walk around and play in the snow in the evening. Dinner at the hotel, which was also very so-so, but manageable.

The next day morning, after we returned our jackets and boots, we also spotted a quaint little Shiva temple at Gulmarg base. Peaceful Shiva temple in his own abode amidst the snowy peaks.

There is a water fall called Drung water falls near Gulmarg. We went there only to see very less water. Go there only if you know that if there is enough water or the water is frozen – in which case it is supposed to be beautiful.

Day 6: We checked out of Green Park and headed towards Pahalgam. Riyaz Bhai had told us this was the longest stretch and would take us at least 3-4 hours. On the way, we stopped at Avantipura ruins.

We were told that this was a place where the Pandavas had stopped during the exile. We took a guide there, who explained that it was a misconception about Pandavas. This is a 11th century Vishnu temple built by the Verman kings of Odissa. It has 5 sub temples within the complex – hence the name got associated with Pandu or 5. There is nothing to do with Pandavas. The ruins are majestic to look at.

We also stopped at two shopping points – one for buying saffron and dry fruits ; and one for Kashmiri clothing/carpets. We did a bit of purchasing here and moved on towards Pahalgam.

Lunch was at Vishnu Dhaba at Pampore on the way. Shady place (filled with smokers), but decent food. We got a place to sit outside thankfully to avoid the smoke.

We reached Hotel White Water Pahalgam in the evening. These are a collection of resorts about 10km before Pahalgam and are on the banks of the River Lidder. Hotel was good and so was the food. We walked to the banks of the river in the evening and spent time.

Day 7 was Pahalgam sight seeing. We checked out of the hotel and drove towards Pahalgam town. We started off with a pony ride to Baisaran – also called Mini Switzerland. The pony ride was scary , adventurous, and fun. It had rained a few days before, and the path was super slushy. There were a couple of view points in the middle. Baisaran itself is just a large meadow in the valley with snowy mountains surrounding it. As in other places, it has its own share of Kahwa and maggi sellers. Our package had three view points (including Baisaram and 2 others). There are other viewpoints that they can take you to, by paying extra. We skipped.

After the pony ride, we went on the ABC cab ride. ABC stands for Aru Valley, Betab valley, and Chandanwadi valley. The union cab funda exists here also. Riyaz had to park the car in a parking lot, and we had to shift to a union car. Deepika had arranged for tickets etc here as well.

The union car takes you on a 1-2 hour ride to the three places mentioned above. The ride is breathtakingly amazing. Snowy mountains and coniferous forests all around you. Aru is just a valley view point. Betab is a park/valley famous for Bollywood shooting spots. The best was Chandanwadi, which still had snow by the road. We stopped and played with snow one last time.

Once we reached Pahalgam, we had lunch at Nathu’s – a proper vegetarian sit down joint. There was also a Punjabi Dhaba next door. We just chose Nathu’s arbitrarily. Food was good.

We then started back towards Srinagar. We stopped at Cricket bat making factory briefly for kiddo to see how bats were made. Quite literally no one even noticed us going through the factory. We did not buy anything – though the bats were cheap.

We reached Srinagar by evening. We were booked into Wangnoo Heritage house boats, which is not on the Dal Lake, but on Lake Nigeen. These are supposedly better and away from the crowd, and more sereen.

Houseboat is actually not that much of a boat. It is just a floating hotel with a few rooms, a common dining area, living room, and a deck, moored at the edge of the lake. The rooms were very tastefully decorated – mostly of carved wood.

Dinner was tasty. But somehow we all got a stomach upset that night and we could not enjoy the stay as much as we hoped we would.

Day 8 we checked out of the houseboat, summoned a shikara and reached the shore, where Riyaz Bhai was waiting with our car. We then headed back to the Srinagar airport. We flew back to Bangalore with a stop over at Delhi.

Net-net, a wonderfully satisfying trip (except for that last one night).

Couple of things that we liked:

  1. In every hotel, they had rubber slippers kept outside the bathroom so that you could go in with your socks on, and not worry about getting your socks wet.
  2. Kahwa is awesome. A bit sweet, but I liked it.
  3. If you go through a travel planner, your driver companion is your single point of contact for everything.

Tips / Points to Note:

  1. Wear warm layered clothing. Thermals, woolen neck protectors, woolen caps, and gloves. (all available on amazon).
  2. Heavy jackets and boots wherever there is snow – can be rented at those places. Be prepared for slightly smelly not very hygienic jacket and boots. If you have sensitive skin or otherwise, please go prepared with alternative arrangements. The jackets and boots will get dirty during the activities.
  3. Back-packs are preferable instead of handbags, because of the kinds of activities you will do (like pony rides, sledge ride etc)
  4. Bright sunlight and snow make most of these places very harsh for the eyes. Take sunglasses. Especially for Gulmarg (both phases).
  5. Make sure all your hotel and activity bookings are in place (or go through a reputed travel planner / agency who will ensure this). We found people who had landed there and not gotten Gondola tickets.
  6. Expect everyone to ask for tips (Khush kar dena). There will be people who will ask if you need photos taken with your own phone. They are not offering help, they will ask for tips after taking the photo/video. The photos are awesome though. Not just photos. Anyone who is helping with any rides will ask for tips.
  7. It is very dry here, and hence you will not feel thirsty at all. But keep drinking water all the time, to avoid dehydration and fatigue.
  8. Keep air sickness bags or equivalent with you all the time, just in case, you (or kids) have a stomach upset. You can get in amazon also.
  9. Keep basic medicines available – like ORS, Eldoper, Dolo, Ondem etc. Esp when during the houseboat, you don’t really have access to a medical shop immediately.
  10. A few others have also told me that they got a stomach upset during their houseboat stay. So just to be safe, keep the houseboat towards the end, so that you can enjoy the rest of the trip.

Contacts:

  1. Deepika, our wonderful trip planner – +91 97798 11662
  2. Riyaz, our driver for the entire Kashmir 6 day trip – +91 96823 46669
  3. Bloomrooms – link
  4. Hotel Rose Petal – link
  5. Hotel Green Park – link
  6. Hotel White Water – link
  7. Wangnoo Heritage Houseboat – link

Mid-journey designer

About a week ago, good friend and head of design (of a leading edtech company), Hardik Pandya, advertised a position (on x/twitter) for a designer who needs to be comfortable using midjourney for design work for a new product.

This (quite obviously) got a lot of eyeballs and opinions – basically did what it was supposed to do.

At the root of this, this essentially validates something that I have been saying for a while. This whole generative AI thing (and I am not generalizing AI for this) is something that is going to enhance the productivity of specialists. Sure some mid level people who are either not competent enough or are not adapting fast enough might get affected. But the general rule of thumb is – if you are adapting yourself to latest tools, you should be fine. This is something that you should have anyway been doing all the while.

Let us take the example of designers in this specific context of the tweet.

  • A good designer’s competency is his way of framing a UI screen / graphic. The way the colour palette is chosen. The way copy enhances the visual. The gradients. The user interactions. The way by which you lead the users’ attention/flow. Once the designer has this nailed (or has the capability to iterate to nail), then its a question of using the right tool for the job.
  • A good designer has probably anyway evolved throughout their career – from photoshop to sketch to figma. This is based on my exposure to the tool chain for a limited use-case superset that I have been involved in. I am sure there are other tool chain evolutions that others can quote.
  • The latest is evolving to a way by which the designer describes all of the above by way of a good prompt. Most likely, the designer would get a 80% accurate outcome (or some similar high percentage), and then the designer iterates on a tool of choice to get the final outcome.
  • The better the designer is with generating the prompt, the quicker (and lesser number of iterations) they get to a high fidelity outcome close to the final. By the time, they are extremely efficient, they are probably close to 95% accurate through their prompting and just have to add finishing touches outside of genAI.
  • Do you see the parallel with extremely competent high productivity PMs <> designers combos?
  • If not, I will give you an example. At Travenues (early stage small team size startup), when I used to sit down with Das (Abhisek Das), our designer with whom I have worked with in the past, and work on a screen/graphic. I would keep rattling off my product thoughts, and Das’s hands flew on figma. It was magic watching the design come alive in front of me, as I iterated, gave feedback, gave more product thoughts, and it just evolved.
  • The expertise power shifts right with genAI. If the designer learns how to translate my PM thoughts into a design prompt, imagine the rate of productivity improvement.
  • Also, do notice here, that the designer cannot be replaced with the PM. The designer knows how to prompt way better, because he has the outcome in his mind, and he is getting the machine to churn that out as closely as possible to what he has in his mind.
  • The designers competency in this grows as he does this more and more (and the models become better and better).

Out of several fields getting impacted with GenAI, this is one of those where I can see first hand (in my mind and in real life recently), how this can practically increase productivity significantly. (The other one is of course code generation, which I am not that close to, but I see very similar parallels).

Trip report: Anaikatti

Anaikatti is a sleepy hamlet about 30 mins from Coimbatore, at the beginning of the foothills that are part of the Palghat pass in the Western ghats. Sterling Anaikatti (like most sterling resorts) is another 15 mins away, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. This is one of the smaller resorts compared to other Sterling resorts. Beautiful all wood buildings and the beautiful River Siruvani flowing besides it. You cannot get into the river but there are nice sitout spots from where you can relax just watching the river flow by and hear the gurgling of the water.

River Siruvani from Sterling

Day 1: We started early from Bangalore (6AM). Breakfast at Murugan idli Krishnagiri around 7ish. Sailed past most of the toll booths on NH44 because of early morning and weekday (Monday). Crossed Salem and got onto NH 544 towards Coimbatore. We hit straight to Isha because we had done significant speed and reached around 1245PM.

It is definitely worth a one time visit. Beautiful. Massive. Peaceful. The Dhyanalingam shrine, where one needs to sit down and meditate for 10-15 min is amazing. There is a certain vibration / feeling that one gets when one sits in front of that huge lingam and the lamps and the silence, and the whistling of the wind.

We walked around all the other shrines. had simple meals in the cafeteria there. Good simple stuff. Saw the tallest face state of Adiyogi (Yep – it is a Guiness world record holder it seems).

On a lighter note, I am sure someone advising Sadhguru (while building Isha) was a big fan of Jurassic park. The tall arched entrances, the arecanut tree plantations, the wooden nameboards, the cursive handwriting. All too familiar. Son was making fun that a t-rex was going to jump out from nowhere.

Reached Sterling Anaikatti in the evening. Rest of the day/evening was just walking around the resort. It is indeed a very peaceful place. No dikchak DJ crowd. Mostly families with children who have come for a relaxing break. Suited us. ymmv of course.

View of the wooden buildings in Sterling Anaikatti

Day 2: First of three outings. Jeep ride to Edavani. This is an area about 30-40 mins from the resort through the mountains, crossing a few mountain streams (which just run over the road), eventually stopping a few km before the road ends. To go beyond, one needs permission because it is an area where tribals still habitate. One of the oldest living tribal populations in the area. The jeep driver stops at another of those mountain stream crossing places where we could get off the jeep, and get into the stream and just relax. The ice cold water was so clear and fresh.

Day 3: Second outing was called River walk. Again a jeep ride for about 30-40 minutes takes us to the banks of the river Bhavani. And the driver took us on a mini trek (no slopes) through dense vegetation along side the river all the way to a place where the River Siruvani and River Bhavani merge. And on the trek back, we were shown a spot where we could jump into the water. Safe rocky place. This was becoming a pattern 🙂

Day 4: Third and final outing was to a place called Maranati. This is an exciting jeep ride. About 20-30 mins of regular road and the last 15 mins was full off-roading on mud/rock paths on a 45 degree incline. At the end of it was a small water fall and a bit of slow rapids, where we could, yeah – you guessed it, jump into the water. We spent a lot of time here much more than the other two days. The other side of the river resembles a water hole like you see in Nat Geo. Our jeep driver told us that this was part of the Nilgiri Bio reserve, and in the late evening / nights, one can spot wildlife (mostly elephants) coming to drink water. We spotted only peacocks at the time we were there.

On all the three days, we were back for lunch at the resort. Evenings were mostly spent playing shuttle, TT, or board games (advantages of taking the car – we took on a bunch of games from home).

There is an evergreen forest about an hour away called Silent Valley. You drive up an hour and then the forest department takes you for a 4 hour jeep ride in the forest. Unfortunately we could not go because tickets were all booked up. Our jeep driver was saying, it is good to explore if you book that in advance (even before you land up).

The stay was comfortable. The rooms were a bit small. There are two types of rooms here – normal and premium. We could not get the latter. Premium rooms are slightly bigger and are an independent cottage types, whereas the normal rooms are 6 rooms in a block – two floors of 3 rooms each. There are only 6 premium rooms in the entire property. So try booking early. Food was decent – nothing to write home about.

Day 5/Return: Started early again 615ish. Dawn was just breaking. Easy 45 min ride to Coimbatore. Had breakfast at Annapurna Sai baba colony. And then headed to Marudhamalai Murugan temple. Reached around 8ish. Had a great darshan, and then started back to Bangalore.

Brilliant breakfast at Annapurna
Misty Marudhamalai

Lunch at Aasai Dosai Saravana Bhavan (Salem) around 1245 and back in Bangalore around 5ish. All in a good relaxing trip.

My ikigai – Product, People, and Tech

I have been thinking a lot about what gives me energy, what I can contribute to the world, and what will still make me money – in short, what is my ikigai (the Japanese concept about which you can read here). I have realized that the intersection of product, people and technology is what gets me to this state. In this long piece (and it has been a while since I wrote a long piece), I am going to be writing different facets of these three circles that I am excited about. I am writing this primarily for myself, so that I can introspect now, and later (if/when I re-read it). 

Technology: If I go by journey chronology, my journey starts with technology. My PhD in Computer engineering took me down some deep research rabbit holes on how to do high level synthesis of VLSI circuits optimizing on static leakage power. It was a world when techniques to reduce dynamic power (or the power that is consumed when electronic circuits are running) was just saturating, and the research in the field of leakage power (or the power that is ‘leaked’ even when circuits were not being used) was just beginning. If you are old enough, you would remember that feature phones would start dying on you at the end of the day, even if you did not use them at all. My research focused on how to design circuitry to reduce this power – which was super important for portable electronics that was just picking up. Doing research taught me resilience, persistence, and the power of positivity (you get knocked down so many times with paper rejects!). Fun fact – My advisor Dr. Katkoori was a huge shell scripting fan, and it rubbed on to me – my entire MS dissertation was a multi-hundred line csh script 😀

This is how beautiful LaTeX type-set research documents looked like. This is a screenshot from my doctoral dissertation.

Right after my dissertation, I joined Cadence Design Systems, where I continued working on power optimization, but this time on production quality software, which crunched circuits of millions of transistors, with almost every known VLSI design house using our software (Samsung, Sony, Texas Instruments, Broadcom, nvidia, apple, to name a few). After a few years, I moved on to Synopsys, where I worked on synthesis tools for FPGA (think of it as configurable VLSI circuits). The focus in both of these roles was writing high performance and scalable code in C/C++. These complex algorithms synthesized the VLSI designs for the latest and greatest chips of the time (and to this day).

Towards the end, I landed a new charter to create a new group called Reusable Components team, to focus on building high performance libraries for several common components that were being written/used across the dozen odd product lines in Synopsys. This was almost like Technical Product Management (TPM) where there was much to be discovered / negotiated / deployed between large product groups that worked in silos. This was also when I created the TPAC (Technical Publications Advisory Council), where we encouraged, reviewed, and rewarded engineers for submitting patents and technical papers.

This is how CAD tools looked back in the day. I wouldnt be surprised if they look the same now. The code on the left is RTL code in verilog. img src utah.edu

This work in Cadence and Synopsys taught me to write solid high performance code. I learnt the subtle art of managing and working with super bright engineers. It also gave me the attitude that any new technology can be learnt and applied, once you have the fundamentals right.  

Product: My jump into Product was purely accidental. I have been blogging for upwards of 18 years. And circa 2010ish, I started writing about interesting products, businesses, and just ideas that just came into me. I was writing about branding/advertising fails (like the mast-kalandar brand in Bangalore around that time). I wrote about products that the travel industry and the upcoming ecommerce industry should implement. One fine summer evening, when I was driving back from work, in the quintessential traffic of Bangalore, I got a cold call from the CEO of goibibo, who wanted to talk about a series that I had written about standardized budget accommodations in India (this was before Oyo, Treebo, Fab etc). We spoke for an hour about what I had written. I was just happy that someone had read my blog (yay!). The next two days, I spent my time (in traffic) happily talking to two other folks. And a week later, I was offered a leadership position to lead Flights at goibibo. I learnt all about product management in consumer startups, from folks at goibibo, and the community (thank you TPF and headstarters). 

web archive of my blog circa 2005. Note metafilter, lifehacker, lifehack.org etc for all the OG folks of that time.

Startups: And then on, I spent some time in goibibo, stayzilla, shotang, and finally ended up doing what I think was closest to being a founder, without the funding responsibilities (ixigo was our parent company). I created and ran travenues – an aviation SaaS ecommerce platform for close to three years. As a tight high performance team, we created magic. Our first paying customer was SpiceJet and we created their entire ecommerce platform from scratch, and as a fully configurable SaaS product. (This still exists in the form of SG’s current android, iOS, PWA, and desktop apps). With CoVid the aviation industry was hit hard, and our prospect funnel disappeared. We ended up selling our IP to SpiceJet and exiting. 

The full travenues story -> https://x.com/gcmouli/status/1285555910379618305?s=20

Microsoft: I joined Microsoft where I have been doing enterprise grade Product Management for the last three years. I have worked on established products such as Outlook and on ultra-large-scale API platforms such as the exchange mail/calendar APIs. In recent years, I have been working on a 0-1 product called Microsoft Places that is solving for the future of hybrid work. I head product for the scenarios that the India team works on. For the sake of completeness, I should include the two years that I spent at Microsoft in the middle of my Synopsys stint, one year of which was disastrous. Being a PM with the Bing team during the time, when the Yahoo! Team-technology-swap happened, took a toll on me. The negativity and the culture mismatch was unnerving, and I went back to Synopsys.

Tech-friendly: Being a technology person in a product leadership role has helped me significantly. I can understand and speak with Engineers and Engineering Managers in their language, which establishes trust very quickly. It also has the hidden side benefit of being able to get better estimates from engineering teams. This is a boon and a bane. There have been times when I have had to learn to tell myself that as a product person, I need to be more mindful of my outcome and the engineering process should not be my problem.

Design-friendly: I had led design in both Stayzilla and Travenues. This educated me significantly on the differences in mind-set and the creative ways of designers. I got to learn how and what levels of autonomy that designers need to bring out their best, and how to build trust with them to trade-off between tactical vs creative work items.  

We did significant redesigns on the home page and on the search page.

People: I contemplated hard on writing this as the first section, because it is so dear to me, but the flow of how I came to be what I am today would not have been clear, if I had done so. 

Creating, growing, leading, and managing high performance teams. Since my early days, I had been doing this in Cadence, Synopsys, and Microsoft. I interviewed, coordinated interview squads, created hiring processes and the likes. I grew my team in goibibo. With the help of my then boss Pankaj Gupta (ex-twitter and a bunch of other great companies, now with Coinbase), I helped do a full-scale org redesign at Stayzilla. We created pods, assigned appropriate lead PMs, set rigorous standup cadences, ship cycles, and right-sized the PM team. We also had to reset the entire design team. I had to rehire almost the full team and was interim head of design for some time. I also headed the awesome content team. There was so much I learnt from Pankaj during this time. I got a chance to do the pod redesign again at Shotang. 

The rockstar team that created magic. We had so much fun doing that. Thats the whole point.

I was part of hiring the entire travenues team. This team was probably the closest tight knit team that I have ever worked with. We created magic (yes, I am repeating myself, but it was!). I even got to bring in my designer and a front-end lead from Stayzilla into travenues. I learnt so much about communicating effectively, client negotiations, high stakes stakeholder management, and dealing with customers. I learnt pitching to customers and creating relationships in the aviation ecosystem at conferences and other opportunities.   

Cross-geographic / cross-cultural interactions. I derive a lot of energy in working with folks across different cultures and geographies. I have worked very closely with teams from the US, Europe, Singapore, Korea, and Japan. It excites me a lot to get to work with people, understand their culture, and get to know them closely. To this day, I enjoy seeing the joy in people’s faces when I do something close to their culture (eg suffixing my Japanese sales counterpart name with the customer ‘san’ salutation). Given my education in the US, I have, in most cases, been the person who will understand the western culture, and get things done with the mothership. This extends to working with folks from different parts of India as well, of course. My Hindi is a unique blend of street cred Mumbaiyya and  respectful salutations from Delhi.  

Teaching, mentoring and community. I learnt most of my product management from working alongside awesome people in startups and meeting up with other people, through communities like The Product Folks and Headstarters. I love to teach. I have been teaching since graduate school. I participate in a lot of panel discussions, do talks, and attend meet-ups as part of PM communities in Bangalore. I have been meeting interesting people for breakfast (as part of what I call #dosaWithMouli) for the last 8 years. This is an agenda-less breakfast where we discuss the vagaries of our career arcs, how we have learnt what we know, what excites us, and many more things. 

My latest talk – Conducted a storytelling workshop at HSX 2023.

Leading style. Leading and growing people/teams is an integral part of my work identity now. It gives me immense joy, and makes me purposeful. I lead people with a balance of structured outcomes, and friendly trust. Radical candor and transparency is a must in my books. If a team member has to always keep guessing what I am thinking, then things are broken. I strive for this mutual trust, without which either of us cannot stand in for each other. I am strong believer that I do my best work when I am having fun, and I try my best to bring in the same with my team.

Culture. They say leave the best for the last, and culture incidentally has landed here. I am one of the strongest believers that culture is what makes people do 10x impact things. I can write a whole blog post on this, but essentially –  setting up people for success, getting the team working seamlessly together, organic transparency and mutual trust, confidence in the team. Culture builds over time but needs to be nurtured from day zero. Culture cannot be built by going to forced team lunches, or t-shirts. Culture needs to be breathed in every day, every minute, and it cannot be forced. Pragmatically, there might be a minority of people who might not subscribe to everything that I described above, but as long as the collective goodness of the ones steeped in it overrides the people who do not subscribe, it wins. Culture also involves continuously be aware of some people going completely against the grain, and taking efforts to align.


End-note: I had been wanting to write this for a while. Why do I want to write this? I tell this story to a lot of people, and almost all of them have said, I should write it down. There is one other reason – I believed that when I do write this down, it would make me think, and boy, it sure made me think. If you have gotten to this point, I applaud your patience, and the interest that you showed in reading my story and who I am. If we are not connected on Linkedin, please do reach out. I am very active on twitter/x as well.

Kitchen Sink or Swiss Army Knife

(img src: pixabay)

In a recent conversation, I kept referring to something as a kitchen sink. After a while, in a very subtle change of tone, the other participant in the discussion called it a swiss army knife. The words make a difference in the way our mind looks at things.

When we say kitchen sink, it is a negative reference to everything under the world being put into the product (often referred to as feature-itis). Sometimes we are quick to judge and call it this, without necessarily understanding the product development journey so far.

When you call it a swiss army knife, this suddenly changes to a product with a carefully thought out superset of features, where each feature can be useful to a different user, and as a whole, is considered a usual package.

In fact, the metaphor extends visually as well. Our minds never picture a kitchen sink as a clean thing – it is always overflowing with dirty dishes (I don’t know why!!), whereas the swiss army knife is pictured as a slick compact device with more features than you can visually count.

Travelogue – Andaman – April 2023

Andaman gcmouli travelogue
Swaraj Dweep aka Havelock (Andaman)

We did a 5 day trip to Andaman. Trip planning assistance was done through pickyourtrail.com. The good part about planning your trip with guys like these are that, you get to plan your itinerary more or less by yourself (instead of one of those pre-planned boxed travel agent tour plans). Our requirements were simple. We wanted a relaxed holiday (did not want to keep running around). We wanted to spend some time in a resort with private beach access. The folks at PYT came up with a great plan. Lets dive into it in detail. Most opinions below are strictly mine. Your mileage may vary.

Day 1:

  • Fly from BLR to IXM (Port Blair). Dep 1130AM and arrival 2PM. Super wierd time, and we hate airline food for lunch. So we picked up sandwiches from Starbucks.
  • We had our Port Blair tour coordinator Arshad and a driver waiting at the arrival area with a name placard. (Will give phone number details etc at the end of the post).
  • Arshad gave us the plan for the day, and logistics. He is like a genie kinda guy. Shows up at just the right time and the right locations to help you with next step logistics. Very impressive coordination mechanics.
  • We checked in to Sinclairs Bay View. Great room (renovated recently) with fantastic views.
  • The property is kinda slightly aged and is in need of some sprucing up (exteriors, dining area, common area etc). Food is ok-ok in the restaurant. The staff, however, is amazing levels of warm / friendly / smiling. This made up for a bunch of issues. They are genuine and try to help. (Example – there was a large group of about 80 pax (pharma company sales offsite) during the time we were there. The staff made sure to tell us to come to the restaurant ahead of the usual buffet time, so that, we can avoid the noise/rush when the large group comes). Our package had a breakfast and dinner included in the tariff.
  • After we had freshened up, we headed off to the Cellular Jail. Spent about an hour or so soaking in the history of this place. Despite the crowds, it hits you hard on the kind of lives that the prisoners led here.
  • We had about an hour and half remaining for the sound and light show at the Cellular Jail. We sneaked a quick visit to the Corbyn Cove Beach. We were not impressed at all in this beach. Bunch of water sports. But nothing else.
  • We sped back to the Jail for the sound and light show – which was amazing. Tugs at your heart strings. Definitely emotional seeing the hard ships that some of our freedom fighters went though.
  • Back to our hotel room after this, had dinner and retired.
  • During all this time, we had the phone number of our scorpio driver (Sarfu). Jio phone signal is weak but not completely absent. In most places, we had some weak signal. We were however told that, if there was any situation where we dont have signal, we could just flag down any tourist vehicle driver and ask to call to Arshad or Sarfu, and people would oblige. I found that fascinating.

Day 2:

  • We had a ferry (Makruzz) to catch to Havelock at 8AM. Reporting time at the jetty is an hour before. Arshad had whatsapped the tickets the previous night. Sarfu was at the hotel in the morning. We had packed breakfast from the hotel (butter-cheese sandwiches (tad bit small, which we were a bit disappointed with), a muffin, biscuits, an apple and a banana). When we reached the jetty, we saw that almost everyone in line had a similar packed breakfast paper bag in their hand. The cruise is a large air conditioned catamaran type luxury boat. 90 min journey. Took us close to 2 hours though. You need to do security etc (pass bags through xray etc) at the jetty.
  • On reaching Havelock, we had Basheer (who was our Havelock coordinator) waiting for us on the jetty with a driver (with a name placard). We were whisked to our hotel – Sandyy Wavess. This is one of a half dozen resorts on a stretch of road with an access to the beach.
  • Super cozy rooms. Great pool. Neat access to the beach. Except please do plan with the tides – which can change the scene within a couple of hours. You would see an awesome beach, but in a few hours, the tide receeds significantly and the beach is just not useable. So enquire about this in advance. (And if this is not available, there is no point in booking a beach access resort). We had this issue.
  • The restaurant was a mess. Staff shortage (which I learnt from one of the servers whom we befriended). It was one chef churning out stuff. The food was good though, but would always take anywhere between 60-90 minutes at a minimum (which pissed us off quite a bit!). The food being good was the saviour. Breakfast and dinner was a buffet – so we needn’t had to do the excruciating wait. Our package had a breakfast and dinner included in the tariff.
  • We went to the beach (on the property), relaxed a bit, and then in the evening headed to Radhanagar beach – apparently the 6th most cleanest beaches in Asia. True to this, the beach is an amazing one. Super clean. Fine sand. Great waves. Fantastic sunset.

Day 3:

  • The first half was going to be to Elephanta Island – where all the water activities are organized. Contrary to its name, it is not an island, even though you take a speed boat to it. It is just a remote part of the same Havelock island, which you go by boat.
  • Super well organized again. You can buy tickets before you take the speed boat. You get assigned a speed boat. You got to remember the boat name (ours was Sea Lion 16). The boat waits for you for 3 hours and brings you back. You can also buy tickets at the destination.
  • All guests get a complementary introductory 5 min snorkeling session. Basically a bait tactic to take the free session, and then lured to deeper waters. We wanted to do this towards the end, but we ran out of time and skipped it.
  • Our package had jetski and glass bottomed boat as part of it. The glass bottomed boat ride is awesome. You can see the corals and the coloured fish clearly.
  • We took a few extra rides – Black eye and Standing rides – which are just different kinds of inflatables pulled by a speed boat. (Wife and kid went on this). We also did Sea Walk (a unique experience) and para-sailing.
  • The Sea walk is a beautiful experience. You are taken to a platform away from shore. Ladders go down to the sea bottom from the platform. The area is netted all around (so that large fishes / sharks do not come in).
  • They put a 45 kg pressurized helmet on your head/shoulders and lower you down (climb down the ladder). Each person has a diver assigned and a photographer taking pics. You go down 20-30 feet to the ocean floor. The diver basically moves you around and shows you the corals, the colourful fishes (think nemo type fishes), and sets you up for good pics, which the photographer is busy shooting with a go-pro. This goes on for about 10-15 mins and then you are pulled up. This does momentarily make the ears pop for some folks (it did for me, did not impact my wife).
  • Overall, the organization is wonderful for the kinds of crowds that this place gets.
  • Back at the hotel by around 130PM and we had food (had to wait 90 minutes for it though).
  • We had the evening to ourselves, but we could not resist the urge to head back to the Radhanagar beach again.

Day 4:

  • Time to head back to Port Blair. This time the ferry was Nautica Lite. A very similar luxury boat. Same duration. The timing was slightly later. So we had the luxury of having a good breakfast buffet before the journey.
  • Back in Port Blair, we had planned lunch at Cafe Amaya. This roof top restaurant has continental fare and was recommended by PYT and others as well. The food was good and the view was awesome.
  • We had the evening to ourselves. We did a leisurely walk down to the Flag Point area (this is very close to the Sinclair BayView hotel). A good long walk. We visited this small temple – Alaikadal Ayyanaar. Beautiful temple. We walked down to the first ever tricolour flag that was hoisted by Subash Chandra Bose in 1943. History goes that, when the Japanese evacuated after WW2, they handed the islands to Bose, who was the supreme commander of the Azad Hind Fauj.
  • We walked past the awesome food trucks, and found one which was selling falooda/ice creams. Yumm-max ice creams was had. We skipped the other trucks, because we were not too confident about handling the veg and non-veg food together.
  • We popped into the Ramakrishna Mission for 10-15 minutes and listened to the evening aarthi.
  • Back at the hotel, we had a good dinner and retired.

Day 5:

  • Originally we did not have anything planned, but in the last minute, we had asked Arshad if there was something we had missed and could cover in a few hours. Our flight back to BLR was only at 230PM.
  • We realized we had not seen Ross Island (Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose Dweep – NSCB Dweep). This was the summer retreat for the British officers.
  • The place is in ruins with tree roots growing eerily over the ruined walls. But one can imagine, how grand it would have been during those times.
  • The tourism board has done a good job of putting concrete paths through these ruins all the way to the light house (and the lone sailor man statue) at the edge of the island ; and golf carts (for a fee) to ferry people around. This was super useful, given the scorching sun.
  • The island has quite a few deer (saw many) and peacocks (did not get to see any). The golf card driver said that, the British had brought these deer to this island for food (venison). When the British left, there were about 15 deer, and now there are about 500 of them.
  • Headed back to the hotel in a couple of hours. Had an early lunch. Headed to the airport. And back in Bangalore for peak hour traffic at 530PM 🙂

Notes:

  1. The Andamans is super super hot in April. You can get dehydrated / zapped very easily. Wear shades and a hat. Put on sunscreen. Keep drinking water all the time. Interesting tidbit – you will only get 2 lt water bottles in most shops. An elderly shopkeeper lady explained why to us – people drink 1 lt bottle in one go and throw the bottles all over. 2 lt bottles however last for some time, and have a handle on top of the bottle.
  2. Both the islands are super clean. Clean roads, pedestrian pathways. No plastic bottles (in the sea or on land). No junk. Was so heartening to see.
  3. Arshad Port Blair coordinator number – +91 99332 74036
  4. The coordination among these organizers is impressive and you should not have to worry too much at all.
  5. Airtel and BSNL have good signal strength across the islands, I am told. I had Jio and we had coverage in about 50% of the areas.
  6. Take adequate cash when you head there. ATMs are available but do not risk it. Given spotty network connectivity, do not rely on UPI. Especially in Elephanta Islands / Havelock.
  7. PB resorts do not have beach access. Some have good views. We realized that this might not necessarily be that big a deal, for some folks.
  8. Ask about the tides and when the beaches are usable.
  9. Don’t miss the Havelock water rides.
  10. We did not do Neil island because we wanted a relaxed itinerary. If this is something that interests you, you should check it out as well.

Pictures in the twitter thread below:

I have a check-in to make …

This is a post that I had posted way back in 2013 (in my old wordpress blog). This was during my engineering days. This was around the time I got back to Synopsys from a short stint (my first stint) at Microsoft. I found this somewhere and it brought a smile. Reposting it.


I sauntered down the steps, two at a time. The sun was just beginning to rise. The river was its best – shining, shimmering. The clamour of feet. So many others rushing down to the river as well. She can take any number of people though. She is the Ganga, after all. I slip down the last step and slink into the water. The tingling freshness of the chill water. The warm breeze blowing ever so lightly over my body. I dunk three times. And slip into my morning ablution rituals.

I climb back up into the first step, and with a sprightly step walk back up. My mind racing still on the algorithmic problem I have been trying to solve. I think I have the answer. I just need to try one more thing. Just one more thing, and I am done. I am almost at the top of the steps, when I notice the brightly dressed young man, the old woman, and the van parked next to them. The young man had this mesmerizing smile and looked into me. Almost piercing. So piercing that I could not look away. He smiled again and lifted his hands towards me in a gesture of requesting me to come close to him.

“Can you please help me get this old woman into the van?”

A flurry of thoughts rushed into my mind. Why was he just asking me? There were so many people around me. Most of them seemingly genuine enough to help other people in need. Something about these two did not seem right. A flash in my mind tells me that, these two were staring at me when I was rushing towards the river. I had not given much thought then. Should I help them? Should I not? Is it wrong to not help people asking for help? The scriptures talk about ‘karma’.

I flung all these thoughts to the side, and I said, “No!”, in my most indignant manner ever. A few passers-by stopped and stared.

“I know about you types. I know how you hire. I know how you do personality tests. This is why I hate you, you white search engine company! I have told you a dozen times, that I do not want to come join you. And you still persist.”

“You think I cannot see your logo with the three multi-colored rings in small print on the bumper of your van? Think again.”

“And for heaven’s sakes. Could you not get a better costume designer? Someone who could be more natural. The old lady looks exactly like the one in all of Kamal Hassan’s movies.”

“And now if you will excuse me, I have a check-in to make”.

And I bolted up the stairs. I had the last piece of my solution to the problem.

Note: This is a transcript of an early morning dream that I had a couple of days ago. One of the very few dreams that I actually remembered after I woke up.

Intensity and Intentionality

“The delta between intensity and intentionality is dissipated energy.”

This simple sounding statement that Jayawant Tewari (JT) made today in a discussion at work, is actually not that simple.

Take a couple of minutes. Read it. Digest it. No, go on. Really.

There is so much in it. Intensity is energy, diligence, focus, raw power in doing something. Intentionality is the doing all that to achieve the right outcome. If you are just putting intensity and not really being intentional about it, you are just wasting energy.

Ponniyin Selvan Movie Review

I got to see the movie on the third day of release. I hate first day first shows. There is too much noise and excitement that one cannot enjoy the movie. And I really wanted to enjoy this one.

As is my usual style, I am going to be jotting down my thoughts on this movie as easily readable/skimmable points, and they are in no particular order.

Cast

The cast is just amazing. Karthi was perfect for Vandhiyathevan. There is a word in Tamizh called ‘Thunukku’ – loosely translating to spunk. The attitude of going by the gut and having the confidence that one can take care of any repercussions. When one reads Kalki’s account, one can almost see the almost naughty wicked smile on Vandhiyathevan’s face. And from now on, when I read it from now on, Karthi’s face will come to mind.

Jayaram is awesome as Nambi. Perfect wit. Again very close resemblance to the character. Each time he says – Narayanaaaa, it is perfect match. The only thing that I did not quite like is the relationship between Vandhiyathevan and Nambi portrayed in the film, where the latter is shown as manhandled by the former a few times etc. I always felt that there was a very complex emotional bond between these two – vaccillating between jealousy, hate, suspicion, trust and in some places massive respect. That did not quite come out. but its ok – for those who do not know about this from the book, the characters do their part well.

Jayam Ravi does justice to the Prince Arulmozhi Varman role. I noticed a very natural persona portrayed by him (brought out beautifully by the director of course). No overacting. And then you realize that, this is exactly what the characterisation of Ponniyin Selvan is, in the epic by Kalki. He is portrayed as this down to earth, no nonsense, no drama Prince.

Now the two ladies – both Trisha and Aishwarya do their part really well. Trisha balances the emotions of coyness, the responsibility of being royalty, and the twinkle in her eyes lights up each time she sees Vandhiyathevan. Perfect portrayal in my opinion. Aishwarya does not necessarily need to do anything. I think her looks lends itself to the deceptively helpless but super dangerous character that is Nandini. Honestly she does not need to (and she does not) do anything exceptional ; but casting made all the difference.

The Pazhuvettarayars play their part. Nothing special. I really wish more could have been brought out of Chief Minister Anirrudhar played by Mohan Raman. A miss. The script could have brought out so much for this character, especially given the superb actor as well.

Not a lot has been spoken about Madhuranthakan in the reviews, but I liked Rahman’s acting. The Prince who was intentionally brought up as a Shiva worshipper and no exposure to ruling the Kingdom, who is cunningly brainwashed and lured into being the true heir of a large Kingdom, is portrayed pretty darned well by him. His lack of expertise but the lust that has been injected into him, comes out well.

Lastly, and intentionally lastly, I really wish they could have cast someone else for Aditha Karikalan. Vikram looks too old. And no, please dont justify the character requires a war torn look. Vikram just looks old. He showcases his acting prowess with his monologue etc, but this was the one casting miss that I would say.

The story and the cinematography

My opinion is going to be that of a movie goer who went to see an adaptation of this ultimate epic that everyone is talking about. I intentionally put aside any expectation of similarity to the book.

In recent years, my wife and me have just lost patience to watch 3 hour Tamizh movies. Just cannot able to. This one broke that jinx. It is fast paced and we did not even notice the time fly by.

Again, I would say – ignore the several plot twists that the original tome has. Kalki wrote this like a mega serial for a weekly Tamizh magazine. Can you think of making something like Radhika’s Chitti into a movie. Just put that into perspective. I liked the way Jayamohan has involved most of the characters involvements into the plot and kept most of the main story line intact. There are a couple of scenes that seemed forcibly added for movie effects – example – the bridge falling down with Chinese warriors hacking the wooden beams/ropes down. Ahem. Was not really needed.

I am not an expert in Cinematography but I kind of liked the simplicity of it all. I really did not expect grandeur. Maybe because I saw the few interviews following the audio launch where I heard about Mani’s fascination of Kurusowa and realism etc. I liked what I saw. Some awesome scenes stand out – Vandhiyathevan walking through the market place of Thanjavur. Kalki takes a chapter for this, but brilliantly covered in a couple of minutes. The meeting between Kundavai and Nandini was covered beautifully. Poonkuzhali’s and Vanathi’s characterization could have been slightly better – the former being portrayed kinda crassly in my humble opinion. Her strength as an independent woman does not quite come out. For those who have watched the movie, there is an easter egg from Prabhu (General Periyavelaar) where he calls Poonkuzhali – “Ey Ponnu ..”. That is such a common dialogue of this veteran actor and brought a smile to my face.

The Camera, lighting etc etc has been debated enough by others. I just felt it did justice to the story that was told.

Locations are brilliant (classic Mani!). The sets are decent. I read somewhere that Thota Tharani has always wanted to do a period movie (his father did sets for all the raja rani movie of yesteryear).

There was a comment by some ‘reviewer’ about the dialogues being weak and it was surprising for Mani’s calibre. Hello, you cannot bring in Thalapathi or Roja level dialogues to a period movie like this. The dialogues are not the hero here. It is the story line and the plot.

Music:

The only comment that I will make is – the music supports the story well (mostly!). Two of the songs are part of the screenplay. There is at least one song that seemed force fitted. The music is nothing to be recalled for. Maybe the one song – Ponni Nadhi Paakanume – is hummable and has recall factor ; the rest are meh. Not bad. They are ok. But not spectacular or recallable.

Summary

Overall, I liked the movie. I am glad that this awesome epic got its movie. Please do not compare the book and the movie. The movie is an adaptation. It is near impossible to make the full book / plot into a movie. Maybe a series, but not a movie.