What citizenship will my great grand kids have ?

There are three things that limit extraordinary or exponential progress for mankind in my opinion .

1. Physical ability

2. Mental ability

3. Time

When you make even small improvements in each bucket, you gain some competitive advantage . For example – if you have adequate food and healthcare , you have better chances of spending time learning , hence a chance of better jobs and hence more wealth creation . If you have better mental abilities than others – you can find better opportunities to create and retain value . All of us have the same amount of time every day – so those who can spend it on higher order activities generally tend to have better results .

The people who tend to have a better combo physical / mental abilities and have more time on their hands – they tend to gravitate towards being the large scale suppliers of goods and services and everyone else becomes consumers .

Scale for suppliers is good for consumers in the short term – gives them better service and better price . Obviously this can turn bad in a hurry when there is no competition . I don’t worry about monopolies very much – I think the more realistic scenario is that there will always be a few large providers for most things consumers need .

The interesting aspect of scale is how technology will be used to make it happen . I think the suppliers will be the first to benefit – be it longer life span due to better healthcare options , better intelligence due to gene manipulation and use of powerful tech , better use of technology to predict what consumer wants , and maybe even better ability to manipulate consumer into wanting something that the providers have to sell , and perhaps the ability in future to be in multiple places at the same time and accomplish more within the same amount of time .

The fact that tech is not there today doesn’t mean it won’t get there in future – and given the tech progress is usually exponential and not linear , its only a matter of whether it takes 20 years or 200 years .

So what about consumers ? Suppliers need consumers – otherwise there is no future for them either .

I don’t expect any sudden change in global job markets . But it’s not hard to imagine that most skills that we consider useful today will become irrelevant tomorrow . We can mitigate it for some more time by changing how we learn and up-skill – but that only delays the inevitable . Eventually the majority of things that a lot of humans do today will be replaced by fewer humans and lots of automation .

So the people who don’t have the skills to do anything that adds value – how will they act as consumers ?

When automation can do stuff better/faster/cheaper than regular humans – there is no reason for suppliers to use these folks to create value . Even at no salary and “will work for food” – as in a terrible “slave labor” type scenario – there may not be any takers .

Even for the consumers who have useful skills – technology might be a good tool for them to gain efficiency in their purchasing . For example – if a personal digital shopper does all your purchases , it might be able to negotiate better prices from all available sources . The side effect is that the suppliers might be the one providing such a solution to the customers . So eventually the consumers loses value long term in that scenario too .

Then there is a possibility that the tax paid by suppliers will be enough to pay for all citizens to live comfortably – the Universal Basic Income concept in some form . This will need a complete rethink of our political and economical systems – and perhaps our religious belief systems too .

Take countries like INDIA and USA for example – which are a union of states with a federal government . Would rich states agree to pay extremely disproportionately to support the poorer states ? If they do – will Americans accept some kind of hybrid communism as a way of life ? And if they don’t – can the rich states stop mass migration from the poor states ? Will the rich states want to become independent countries at that point to retain their advantages ?

Even if no states leave the union in INDIA and USA , and the tax situation somehow works out with negotiations etc within each country – that still doesn’t solve the problem . Mexico and Pakistan might not have enough supplier taxes to cover their population adequately . Will US and INDIA send them their tax money to prevent mass immigration and its associated problems ?

The likely outcome given how government works everywhere is that they will increase the tax burden on the suppliers . It will get to a point where the supplier has no incentive to be in business any longer . Given they are already better than others with physical/mental abilities and time management – a good number of them probably will find a way to keep the advantage they have and stop contributing to the tax base .

At that point – what is the definition of “a country?” . Would physical boundaries and National flags mean much at all ?

I was born and raised in INDIA . If you look at the history of British rule in INDIA – you can easily realize that technology (ships , weapons, looms, medicine etc) gave a huge advantage to Britain – and INDIA eventually became a source of raw materials and a consumer for the finished goods. The kings who ruled INDIA at the time largely didn’t get along with each other , common people identified themselves with the territory their king ruled , and there were a lot of immediate problems to solve instead of worrying about technology . Looking back – it didn’t end well for INDIA at all for a couple of centuries .

The mistakes of the past like what happened in INDIA could repeat itself with even greater impact across the world . We will probably look back at last few decades and take a stance that automation has been a boon and not a curse – and we will be quite right in saying so . We might even look forward to say it will still be a boon for next twenty years – and that could be also quite true . But in doing so – we maybe doing our future generations quite an injustice .

It maybe ok for our grand kids to not have any nationality or religion – but we don’t have a clear idea of what will take their places as identities . And if we leave it for future generations to figure all this out from scratch and go on with our lives , we may not be doing humanity any favors . At a minimum we need to start taking small steps to define these solutions and work towards it with clarity .


Learning Philosophy : Between N-1 and N+1

In 1997, I was an apprentice engineer in a Tire company in India after finishing my degree in mechanical engineering . One evening, a machine broke down in the line and I quickly figured out that it’s just a broken spindle that needs to be replaced . I did some quick calculations and figured a 10.2 mm diameter is what the replacement should have . I could see the confusion in the eyes of everyone around me . Someone quietly went to the store and got the replacement and work progressed . The next day – my boss took me back to the machine , and showed me there was a panel with clear instructions there on parts – and the standard size replacement was 10mm . There is no such thing as a 10.2mm . He was sympathetic – he coached me that 90% of the time , you don’t need to worry about actual calculations and have to just follow the manual . He never gave me an example of the 10% when I will need to know the calculations 🙂

The next episode happened in Colorado in 2000 . I was a young programmer struggling with a massive old C program that started misbehaving after I added some functionality needed for my project . I didn’t change any existing code – and my code would compile without error and execute when I did it as a stand alone program. I went to the team leader – a long time veteran of HP-UX and probably the best programmer I have seen in my life . He casually asked me “Anything odd with the assembler code?” . I am not a CS major – and while I thought I was a really good programmer in C and a few higher level languages , I didn’t have the faintest idea on how a compiler actually worked or even how to read assembler code . Well, I was given a 30 mins tutorial and a manual for instruction set architecture . I struggled for weeks and eventually figured out what was wrong . I will spare you the details – but I walked away thinking that all mission critical code should be compiled without Optimisations turned on . I also learned to my horror that compilers can actually have bugs . Till today I don’t know if the compiler I used had an issue – but to be honest , I have never felt confident enough to blame a compiler even once when my code fails .

I wrote my first BASIC program in 1986 and first C program in 1989 . Till this episode in Colorado in 2000, I had never thought about the need for understanding what happens at a level below (N-1) what I needed to learn for everyday use . And in general I would say I had spent more thought on higher level abstractions (N+1) from where I am operating from .

My father was a very talented mechanical engineer . He used to tell me when I was in college that an engineer’s job is to make sure that whoever used the output of an engineer’s creation should be able to take it for granted – a lamp should switch on , a car should run when ignition is turned on and so on – without the operator knowing how it happens . And when it doesn’t work – most of the time the operator should know what’s wrong , and quickly decide if it needs expert help . By his definition – I wonder if he would have agreed that software is a real engineering discipline 🙂

If the episode in 2000 with Assembler had not happened – I doubt I would have developed an interest in N-1 thinking as my learning philosophy at all . It did help me quite a bit as moved into more business leadership roles later in my career . As I wrote recently about scaling a business , the ability to go to N-1 is critical when rethinking the building blocks . Otherwise we routinely get stuck in status quo and at best some incremental progress . Equally important is the fact that the moment you have solved things at N-1 , you need to zoom out to N+1 to pick up speed .

Keeps life interesting , doesn’t it ?

Scaling a business during the Covid pandemic – a dozen lessons I learned

2021 has been quite an interesting year and I have alternated between “will this year ever end?” and “Whoa – are we in December already?” . Both from a business perspective as well as from a personal perspective – I had to learn new things and act differently . I thought I will share what I learned , with the hopes that perhaps some of it will be useful to others

1. Every step-change will break things where you least expect it

I was very proud that we were able to shift thousands of people in the team to work from home last year with zero difficulties because we have a strong business continuity plan that we trained for and implemented efficiently . So I had a false sense of confidence that it will be equally smooth when adding more people to the team . I was wrong – everything from courier service to background checks to laptop availability failed to scale at a certain threshold . These are all things I took for granted all my career . Thankfully we have such a great team that they sorted it out extremely fast !

2. Over communication is mostly a bad idea

When we started remote work, the instinct was to checkin with all the teams frequently . But very soon – the teams adapted to the new norms of working , and we didn’t tweak the “checking in” frequency. It became a diminishing returns investment of effort and leaders started burning out faster with the extra time spent on an activity that could have used a different cadence . Same with mass emails , all hands calls etc . Less is definitely more !

3. But you do have to over communicate some times

What works with people who have been in the team for a long time doesn’t work for people who are new to the team . That was true in the past too – but scale puts a spotlight on it quickly ! Questions that would get asked to someone sitting next to you in office would now often need a manager to explain the answer . Mentoring younger colleagues coming from university online is not the same as mentoring an experienced hire online . We had to learn to segment and tune our approach every time we detected a pattern . Again , we also need to learn when to ease off with the new team . I do wonder if these problems will get addressed by HR Tech at some point

4. Free form feedback is way more useful in uncertain times

As an analytics guy by training, I measure everything . That didn’t change during the pandemic times either . But I did learn after a couple of quarters that standardized questions are very limited in these times to address issues and opportunities with the client or my team . Free form feedback is where the useful information was mostly available . I read every comment that my team and client make in the surveys – and we talk about addressing them in our leadership meetings . I also use sentiment and tone analysis with ML to get a gauge of the aggregate as well

5. Invest in leadership ranks ahead of scale

I am a firm believer in leaders at every level making fewer but higher impact decisions compared to their team if they have to be effective . In uncertain times , there are hundreds of more decisions to be made even if the business is steady . There are thousands of more decisions to be made if the business is growing . If you don’t have enough good leaders – you will sink faster than you can imagine . Good teams grow because of strong culture . It’s very easy for the culture to go south if scale happens in an unmanaged fashion . That’s another reason why having good leaders are vital .

6. Invest in operations

A highly efficient operations team ( finance , HR, bizOps ….) is the reason why most business leaders don’t die of panic attacks . When they are very good – leaders occasionally take it for granted that they have infinite capacity . Operations have people and processes . Both parts will stretch only to a limit and they they will break . Relook at literally everything that is needed to keep the business growing and invest in operations and redesign workflows .

7. Relook at all communication channels

I hope there is a massive series of studies done on this topic . Slack has been a life saver for me. I over estimated the effectiveness of video . And I rediscovered how effective good old phone calls are . A great example of the change in effectiveness are the quarterly all hands calls . I don’t see a tenth of interaction in those massive webex events that I get on a slack based ask me anything session with my global team .

8. Business Relationship building has evolved

A pleasant surprise for me this year was that unlike 2020 – it is now totally effective to build new business relationships online via webex and email and calls , without face to face meetings . It’s incredible how long established norms of shaking hands and breaking bread as first steps in a new relationship got replaced by talking about children and pets on webex ! No business scales without scaling relationships vertically and horizontally – so this is a very good change in my view

9. Take good care of people – that is one thing that has NOT changed

All business is ultimately about people on all sides . That’s the one constant that did not change in pandemic times . The great resignation is something we need to learn from and act on quickly . Money , flexibility , interesting work – there are lots of reasons why people quit their jobs . You can’t fight the forces of market – you have to adapt quickly and find your own equilibrium . My fundamental view has not changed in pandemic times – I think the key to attracting and retaining good people is to make sure that leaders and their teams feel comfortable in discussing everything openly and being fair to each other . If I look at where I spend most of my time – I think it’s probably 50% on helping my team , 30% with assisting my clients , and 20% on all other things taken together .

10. Increase the focus on learning

Pandemic has caused a lot of grief in the world . I lost friends and family – and I don’t deny I have an amount of fear in my mind at all times . But for business – it has largely created more opportunities . But to tackle these opportunities effectively – you have to be an aggressive learner , and encourage everyone around to do that . On the technology side – I spent my time learning more on Redhat openshift , Ansible and GCP . I also have been reading up a lot about the tech behind crypto currencies . On the non tech side – I have been reading more about WW2 and life during Great Recession

11. Take some time off – don’t make the mistake I did

I am generally good at taking some vacation every year to reset . I did not do that this year and it certainly is proving to be a bad idea . I know I am not alone – and it’s not going well for others who didn’t take the time off either . Almost everyone I know in my team and in my network who has taken the time off are more productive than I am .

12. Do something else outside work

Last year, it was mostly playing cards online daily with my friends . That has come down a lot this year . But 4 days a week, I take my puppy to training for IGP competition which we hope to start competing next year . I try hard to block that time off from all work – and it literally has been the best decision I made this year . It brings a much needed balance . I am sure that if I hadn’t decided on that – and also not taken vacations – I would have completely burnt out half way through the year . I am fascinated by the range of hobbies my friends have picked up new this year- Ironman , wood carving , singing , equestrian etc . In every case their experience mirrors mine – and their businesses have had a positive impact .

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