Leading a team

I’ve recently switched to a new role at MobME, and here are my initial impressions and a few lessons learnt in the past few months. This is a rather free-flowing account, but I want to write this down and codify before I forget.

Rule uno: people aren’t resources. There’s a constant management-level question I hear: “How many resources can you allocate to a particular product?” or “How much time and resources do you need to solve this problem?”. I don’t answer such questions at all, or when I do, I talk about the people I have in my team and their skills and limitations. I’ve strongly felt that no organization can grow without taking care of its people, and especially for small startups, to make attrition low and happiness high, this is a concern that should be addressed from the top. Rephrase these questions this way: “Can person X solve this problem?” and “Can person X and Y be reallocated to this task?”.

Following on, every person is special: they have different skills, learning speeds and communication capabilities. Every good person can improve, and they should constantly be pushed to do that. Nobody should be idle and static.

And nobody should do make-work. It’s not necessary because there are always real problems to solve. If anybody is picking up a new language or skill, after a few tutorial-level sessions and a max of two days, he should jump into the new role and start fixing bugs and solving real problems.

Good processes make a good team. At MobME, I’m implementing a few things I learnt while working at Uzanto: Daily End-Of-Day reports for the team, SCRUM in the morning, and constant communication via a small office and approachable managers. The work atmosphere is relaxed, and people are given time to learn. There’s no fixed time for lunch or a quick smoke. There’s an attendance register and people are held accountable for their work and leave.

At the end of the day, Work is Everything™. If there’s a deadline to be met, do or die, we meet it. People remain late in the office (till 1 at night is the current MobME record) and finish work before they go.

What you do when you’re not in office is none of anybody else’s business. Although as a rule, work hard, party hard.

When you lead a technical team, if you have problems you use technology to solve them. This is obvious, but I’ve so often seen this overlooked. You can’t find a way for developers to collaborate? Find an effective source control method. Project management? Bug tracking? Time tracking? A caveat: too many tools is a mess. Find effective and simple ones. We use Beanstalk and Lighthouse along with Google Apps for documents and mail.

As a corollary to the above, not every problem is technical. Instead of inventing one, try simplifying the product or the spec or going back to the drawing board. If it’s too much of a hassle technically, it’s the product pushing back at you, resisting crappy things being done to it. Hear it out and redo things. Redoing things the right way is a good thing. Take time out, fix stuff and it won’t bite you in the ass the next time.

Another gem: keep internal mail to a minimum. When everybody is in the same office, shout out to him (or take him outside) instead of firing off a mail thread. It’ll solve problems so much more efficiently. Having the management & technical wing in nearby offices means that for us, most problems are solved in a week. No network cabling in office? A quick discussion with my operations lead and I get work done. No firing off complaint mails.

Communication is key. Let everybody know your worries. Everybody includes the people under you. A lot of the time, they’ll end up finding a better solution.

The primary role of a technical lead as I understand it is to get work done. It’s not to go off to conferences evangelizing the product (although it’s a good thing to do). Meet the deadlines your boss sets for you. Make sure your people work hard and they learn lots of stuff in the process. Keep an eye out for new technology. Document your processes. When you find problems, fix it and ensure it doesn’t happen again. Get good infrastructure. Communicate problems with the management.

Everybody in sales, marketing, etc. should know more than a little bit of tech. Increase technical awareness and make the process transparent so anybody can ask questions no matter how stupid it is. Often a completely new way of thinking about a problem brings in new technical insights too.

When there’s a problem, criticize. This is hard to do initially, but good people realize that your criticism is for the work and not the person. If they still have issues after you talk it out, ask them politely to leave or toe the line. When you find people improving and processes becoming smoother after you’ve talked it out with the team, it’s a real nice feeling.

And at the end of the day, make people happy and be happy yourself. Which of the lot, is the hardest.

Chak De India

Chak De India

I watched Chak De India yesterday and found the movie disturbing. I’d rather India had lost at the end but still come home to accolades for playing well. Focusing on victory as the singular goal seems to be so wrong. I also thought the movie took a rather unsubtle dig at the media’s reaction to loss and its treatment of a muslim player. [The movie itself was mediocre with Sharukh’s overacting and tripe dialogues; however surprisingly broad: everything from cricket’s unequaled popularity to sexual undertones between the coach and players].

SimpleDB

What’s missing from Amazon’s suite of web services? Two things: SimpleDB which provides database-like persistence and SimpleBalancer, which load balances “services” on multiple EC2 clusters. While it’s possible to emulate both using S3 and EC2 right now, it’s hard to do, and feels really clumsy. When Amazon does engineer these things, expect Google to take a peek in as well. Oh, we live in interesting times.

Hyperwriting

One element of good writing for the independent web[1] which is often overlooked is that your writing is part of a larger story which is not under your control. This is to an extent true for all writing which doesn’t stand alone: an article is part of a magazine just as much as a recipe is part of a cookery book. And like all such writing, it’s perceived as part of a larger whole.

What’s special about the online jungle is that you can’t even assume constant assumptions on the part of the reader. For example, NYT articles are democratic, CNN.com has propganda [;-)], and Fark.com is (adult) funny. If you write your articles in one of these media, and if you keep your average reader in mind (you’d do this is you want effective writing, which is what all this is about) then you’d tailor your articles to suit expectations. But in the larger miasma of the web, how do you decide what and how to read expectations? The web is connected, and the spiders that visit your frayed hideyhole might come on from thousands of different places, and there’s no guarantee of any continuity.

One simple answer is that you create your own universe and let your reader be immersed into it. People buy this oh very quickly. The hypothesis is that every page is special, and a click-through from an adult site is as likely to be impressed as one from a search engine.

As an aside, one technique which is underutilized to propogate this mass-hypnosis is clever linking. Hypertext is alive because it can send your user to other pages. Even though Google has perverted the medium with commercialization, people do like to click on links. Use that fact! Lead them on. Make a story within a story (it’s much better than enclosing an aside in parentheses), or even make them read a worthier one. You get to choose.

Getting back, is there a different way? Creating your universe is oh-very-well, but can you match zillions of varied expectations? A good way is to try to reduce it to a few common ones. A lot of sites use a technique where visitors coming in from a search engine get their words highlighted on the site automagically. Let’s say you come here searching for “porn king” (god forbid). To help you out, my site will highlight all instances of that term in your landing page. Is this good for the visitor? Undoubtedly. Does it match your interests, does it tell your story more effectively? Maybe. In this example, very much not, but it’s still a very user-friendly thing to do.

You probably can cook up a different version of a page for a user that comes in from:

  • a social networking site
  • your girlfriend’s site.
  • a mobile browser (device dependent).
  • a competitor’s website, etc.

Condensed, what I’m talking about is that referrals and clever referral management to rewrite your content could pay dividends. True?

[1] Blogs, pages, documentation, stuff which floats.

On Relationships

Statutory Disclaimer: I don’t know anything I’m
talking about, and even if some of these make
sense, it’s definitely local wisdom. Don’t go
applying this all over the world. People differ,
their attitudes differ.

Begin:

I suppose a side-effect of knowing many people
is that you experience lots of different things.
That leads to some of your ideas crystallizing
into definite thoughts, and losing a lot of
misconceptions. These past two months of my life
have been very eventful. Unforgettable. A Learning
Experience. I was asked out (to which I said a
very polite no), two of my closest friends are
going through relationship-hell, I’ve been
talking about this to DP a lot, and one close
friend asked me very seriously in class, “How do
you go about talking to girls?” It is then,
perhaps natural that I’d like to write down
something about relationships.

Of the romantic variety. Or those flavors which
are somewhere in between, in confused, muddled
waters. I can’t state this authoritatively, but
I’m sure a fifth of my college-mates are in a
relationship. Of those, around 95% don’t
survive the real world. The question, of course,
is whether to
take the plunge. While tales of bitter breakups
and broken hearts, and scary stories of first-love
-gone-bad-life-wrecked-people abound, I’ll
definitely say that you should. How do you know
you’ve met the right girl if you haven’t met the
wrong one? ๐Ÿ™‚

If you like a
girl, do let her know. Rejections are a part of
life. Some girls learn to do it well (as a
corollary, some guys learn to take it well), and
you can remain friends for life. Unless you’re a
full-blown jerk (and sometimes even then) every
girl is flattered when you make her understand
you’re interested in her. Don’t let her convince
you otherwise. And I’ve known guys who have gone
to the ends of the earth to make a ‘No’ ‘Yes’.
Some of them have succeeded. Is doing something
like that worth the effort? Maybe. If you are sure
you can make the ‘No’, something along the lines
of ‘Yes, oh god, Yes!’ ๐Ÿ˜‰ I’ll advise you to give
it a shot. But no does mean a no. Don’t
assume.

Follow through on your proposal. The worst things
to do is lose interest after a while, so be really
sure this is somebody you like. Think of her first,
put yourself second. Do you honestly think she’d be
better off with you? Are you going away somewhere
else after a while leaving her hanging, you jerk?
Unless you’re sure, be her friend, that works out
best in the long-run.

How do you test the waters? How do you find
girls who are interested in you? It is not hard.
There are lots of girls around. Be interesting
yourself. Cultivate humility, good manners, some
measure of talent, and conversational skills. Try
to make her laugh. Be attentive. Be assertive, not
a bully. Don’t listen to everything she says. Have
your principles. And, don’t be desperate for her
to fall for you, that’s probably the biggest turn-
off.

What if you just want to have fun? What if you
don’t want anything serious, just a casual fling?
Nothing lasting, just some ephemeral joy. The
first rule perhaps is that there is a cost to
everything. Nothing comes cheap. When people get
to know each other first, that’s perhaps the best
time of the relationship. Both are on their best
behavior, because both want to impress. After a
while, familiarity leads to those self-imposed
rules relaxing. When you get into a relationship
with the intent of having ‘just fun’, those rules
relax much earlier. This, more often than not,
leads to an explosive breakup. But that’s okay
with you, isn’t it? ๐Ÿ™‚ Nothing comes without
emotional baggage. I know friends of both genders
who thought they could handle a casual fling, and
who couldn’t. It’s tough to accept another man
having a go at ‘your’ girl, but wise men do learn
to move on. Oh, but at the same time, I know
people who have three girlfriends at a time
and are insanely happy about it. (Lesson:
people are different, figure out which category
you fall into).

Another oft-quoted dilemma is the Women-are-
from-Venus conundrum. “Who can understand them,
man?” Well, you don’t necessarily need to
understand them to love them. It’s very true that
girls think differently. They have different
priorities (looks, attitude, appearances, ego, are
some which I and many men don’t understand) and
different interests, but find a girl whose core
values (not “We both hate Will & Grace”, but “We
both think money is not so important”) are the
same. That helps, but is not a surefire method for
longevity.

One other thing perhaps, is to always be
yourself. Don’t make her think you are somebody
else. (White)Lies like that never
survive. Do believe that you are special and you
deserve someone special. Also have the ability to
make her feel special ๐Ÿ™‚

(And that is probably enough of Vishnu playing
a censored Dr. Ruth. Hope this’ll help somebody) ๐Ÿ˜‰