Glimpses of a mature work culture

One of the companies that we visited in my recent trip to Silicon Valley along with the SVSquare fellows is Evernote. I was also quite looking forward to the meeting in that Evernote happened to be one of my favourite productivity applications. I use Evernote almost only for clipping articles though.

Few things generally stand about the tech startup work culture in Silicon Valley; large open spaces, free food, large walls of idea paint etc. All these were visible at Evernote as well. But during my visit, I got to learn about few more things of Evernote that you usually don’t come across at other companies. I’ll write about one of those instances in this article.

As soon as we entered, there was a coffee counter right next to the reception area. Now this was normal. What was not normal was that a person, who will carefully prepare the coffee and hand it over to us, manned the coffee counter. Now this was uncharacteristic. All the coffee counters that I have come across till day in the valley offices belong to the “Help yourself” category. After I had taken my coffee, I also happened to see this person having a very engaged conversation with the next person that came over for coffee.

It was a few minutes after that coffee that Troy Malone, our host at Evernote, came to receive us. Troy was this amazing enthusiastic energetic person and to our amusement he was also wearing a jersey of the Indian cricket team.

I had to ask Troy what was this person manning the coffee counter all about. That’s when we all got to know the real story. The person who was manning the coffee counter on that day was some senior VP from the engineering team. Everyone is expected to man the coffee counter for an hour on a rotation basis. This is intended to give people a reason and an opportunity to get to talk to each other and get to know each other better. They have an internal calendar on which the coffee schedule is visible to everyone. If you see someone on that list that you wish to catch up with, all you got to do is decide to have your coffee break during that scheduled hour. Simple, effective and brilliant!

Smart organisations have realised that they key to creativity and camaraderie lies in enabling good conversations between people. Creating an environment that is conducive to it and actively facilitating conversations between people is an active role of leadership; more so in this age of information overload, attention deficit and personal consumption devices.

Some trivia before I wrap up this article. Ever wondered why Evernote has an elephant for their logo? Apparently, there is a saying that goes “Elephants never forget”! Came across a really nice picture also on one of their idea painted walls that read, “Elephants never forget”

They also have Hobbit themed food names. Now that’s only because their CEO happened to be a huge hobbit fan. Not everything is related to productivity calls I guess. Or is it?

- At Evernote office with SVSquare fellows
- Coffee counter area at Evernote
- Troy Malone of Evernote in Indian cricket team jersey
- “Elephants never forget” – Evernote

WhatsApp and the double edged sword of double ticks

Note: This article was originally published on March 7, 2014.

It was during a British High Commission dinner event that I was invited to that I heard the first whatsapp bashing. This was around a year back. And the sentiment was quite strong as well. “I hate whatsapp” was one of the remarks of one of the ladies of the British High Commission team. It was promptly echoed by one of her colleagues standing by her side as well.

Well, of course I was puzzled. It was such a beautiful app. How could they not like it? I loved the app and here I am running into absolute haters of the app. I didn’t get it.

I had to ask and I did politely enquire the reason for those “I hate Whatsapp” statements with the two lovely ladies. And they only had one issue (one major issue btw) — it was enabling a version of online stalking!

The culprit were the combined effect of two aspects: the double tick to indicate that the message has been received by the recipient and the line which reads “last seen at time on”. Apparently, people would ping them with messages that read “I saw that you were online last night at 2am. Why didn’t you respond to my message that was sent early last night?”. Worse still “What were you upto at 2 in the night? ;)”. Well, there is a fine line between flirting and perversion and going by the tone of response from the ladies, this casual enquiry message clearly did not belong to the former category.

Now that I had heard about their side of the story, it all made sense now. Why they hated whatsapp and why they preferred BBM over whatspp. (The latest BBM version had the equivalent implementation of the double tick but the user had the power to add or not add someone to his or her chat network)

To weigh in both sides of the story, yes, there is merit to whatsapps implementation as against that of BBM. In BBM, there is better control of who gets into my chat list but there is this additional work on my part to add each and every person that I want on chat explicitly (BBM messenger required a BBM pin to add someone and the person has to manually accept that request to be able to chat). On Whatsapp, you have the number of a person, you have them in their chat list. It was super convenient and this implementation had a lot of merits. While you can argue that you had the option to block someone, that’s an option we normally resort to in extreme situations (and usually not the case when someone asks you why didn’t you respond or what you were upto)

I now completely get it. Several months down the line when I decided to uninstall whatsapp, this double tick was one of the major reasons why I decided to go ahead with the uninstall decision. Not quite because of the stalking issue but owing to the fact that it became difficult to manage expectations. When people sent you a message on whatsapp and they see a double tick, they expect a response from you. And the built in expectation of a whatsapp message is in the order of minutes as against a day or two when it comes to email. That was problem number 1. And from time to time, I also encountered the situation where people asked me the question that irked the British High Commission ladies so much “I saw that you were online at time. Why didn’t you respond to my message?”

The next problem can be attributed to the phenomenon of social niceties. The combined effect of messages that read “Hi” “Good morning/night/evening/afternoon” “Did you have food” “Happy Diwali/friendship day” from a large number of people that had access to my phone number (and therefore to my whatsapp chat list) was a challenge. It was a tricky territory for me for if I don’t respond, the person might be offended and if I do, I’m actually encouraging that behavior and more importantly the sender might take it as a cue for engaging in a conversation right away. (Whatsapp does not provide API access too, otherwise I could have attempted to get one of those startup guys to write a chat bot to automate these social nicety responses on my behalf )

I resorted to a practice of switching off my data and switching it on only at predefined intervals in an attempt to manage this double tick thing and the expectation management challenge that resulted from that. Eventually, I decided that it would just be easier for me to delete the app for the time being. I also realized that most people don’t prefer texts much anymore and that it also costs them to send an SMS while making this move to a text only mode. Plus, the expectation of getting a response for a text is not as real time as is the case with a whatsapp message. I was counting on all these factors to reduce the inflow of messages to my phone when I made the switch to a no whatsapp mobile experience.

Don’t get me wrong. I did like whatsapp and I still do. The problem was the whatsapp did not give me a choice with respect to this aspect of my social life. It did not give me a choice like Orkut did. In Orkut, if you don’t wish to see who viewed your profile, you also wont get to see the list of people who viewed your profile. Similarly, had whatsapp provided me options with respect to double tick and last seen, I would have been a delighted customer and would have still been on whatsapp enjoying all the positive experiences that the app provided me with.

Since then, I was on the hunt to find a hack that eliminates the double tick issue from my phone. There is this bright engineering student that helps me with all my hacks. He did some research and found that it should be possible. Apparently, all data usage from the phone (or any device for that matter) to the internet happens through ports and you can manually restrict access to certain ports for certain apps. Our dear engineering prodigy did some research and told me that the double tick removal from my whatsapp should be possible (since whatsapp was using some two different servers and therefore two different ports for sending and receiving or something like that). I was hoping that he will find out a hack soon so that it will be a welcome relief for me, those two ladies and all the others who faced similar issues.

While all this was happening, thankfully, another friend of mine, who was well aware of this whatsapp situation of mine, forwarded an article (Link to the article) to me a few days back. Apparently, whatsapp is rolling out an update themselves that will allow you to have control over the double tick and last seen. Its not available in the Google App Store yet as per the article, so you might need to manually install it by downloading the apk file from the whatsapp website. I’m just super glad that whatsapp themselves decided to roll out this feature. My faith in the company and their focus on providing the best experience for their customers has been restored.

All those on Android, this should be a really useful thing for you. As for me, my return to whatsapp is going to be a bit more delayed. I have a BB10 (Blackberry) phone. So I need to figure out a hack to get this Android APK / app to run on my Blackberry (its possible and that’s how I’m using the Wunderlist app on my phone: Its their Android app) or wait until whatsapp comes out with the BB10 version of this update. Looking forward to be back on Whatsapp soon! Until then, its good old SMS for me

In pursuit of a new work culture

I woke up today morning thinking about this. Work, the way modern society has defined it, has changed from what someone had to do to make their living. So in some sense, work has evolved or is in the process of evolving beyond its primitive survival stages. Work today can and should be avenues in which we can fully engage in our creative pursuits.

This in my opinion is going to be among the most significant differentiating facets between the previous generation and this generation; our dad’s generation and our generation. Work in our dad’s generation was akin to going to the farms when we were almost entirely dependent on agriculture for our means of food and survival; which by the way was fairly the scenario during our granddad’s generation. It wasn’t necessarily fun or interesting to do. Nor did it potentially provide us with a platform that fully leveraged our creative capabilities and talents as human beings. But it was something we had to do in order to ensure that we had food to eat and keep us healthy. And even those who really enjoyed farming were limited by what they had to do as against what they really wanted to do with their passion for agriculture.

So yes, our parents were right. Work was required to provide for need and leisure; for food and entertainment. They key term to understand there being “was”. Not so much in this time and age. The world has changed. As a society, we are now entering into an era of surplus and abundance aided to a large extent by the strides made by technology. To cite a simple example, with a YouTube and Chrome (both of which are free) and a 750 INR a month internet connection we have better access to entertainment and informational content than what the best of cable TV channels could have ever offered. And hey, this is even without considering torrents in the equation!

The breadth of content is also limitless. I dont think we would have even known about the awesome Gangnam style song had it not been for YouTube! :) And the best part is that we can watch our favorite song or serial / sitcom when we want and not at the consensus time that the producer and the advertiser choose for us. No need for an 8am wake up alarm to catch GI Joe on Star TV, 715pm reminder for our 15 minutes of Chithrahaar or an 8pm fight between dad, mom, sister and grandparents to decide who gets to watch what. The choice need not be between stay back at school to play cricket or rush back home to watch Small Wonder and Captain Planet. I loved both, I wanted both. But in an age and time, it was not quite possible to be able to do both. I had to choose one or the other but not both. Not so much in this age. From a society where compromise was the norm we are moving to an era where choice is going to be the norm.

The memory that comes to my mind is that of an aunt of mine. Every evening, she would rush to complete her work and finish her household chores so that she is free by 8pm. Why 8pm? That was the time when the next episode of her favorite Mallu serial comes on TV. Well, not anymore. What changed? Let me affirm that, to this date, her love for the serial still remains pristine. What changed was her discovery of the joy that YouTube offers. And she loved it! She learned that the very same episode appears on YouTube within a few minutes after it appears on TV. No ads, no rush to manage your life to an artificially imposed time schedule, ability to watch her favorite episodes as many times as she pleases, no more fighting with her son for the remote coupled with the ability to catch up on all those episodes from the days she missed her 8pm deadline.

We need to start looking at work opportunities as a means to learn and have fun as against just a means to earn. The information age calls for new thought processes, ideals, tools, technology and role models to navigate todays economic landscape. Its time that we start rethinking the definition of work from what one had to do to something one would love to do. And sometimes I wonder whether startup is just the alternate term that we coined to be able to convey precisely this point. And fortunately, large sections of society today can afford to move to this stage of societal evolution thanks to the foundations in terms of economic and social stability provided to us by the efforts and sacrifices of our earlier generations. It’s time that we start rethinking the definition of work from what one had to do to something one would love to do.

Books that made me rethink

Books have a very interesting power to make you think and even change the way you think. Its power to transform us at a much deeper level has always amazed me.

There have been several phases in my life with respect to books. Over the years, I traversed through the phases of Balarama’s, Amar Chithra Katha’s, Secret Seven, Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Asterix & Obelix, Tintin, Harold Robbins (only the raunchy pages I must confess), John Grisham, attempts at trying to read Kotler and the likes for a brief phase in between and the legendary Calvin n Hobbes (in that order).

And then sometime soon after my graduation, I got hooked to the non fiction bandwagon with the book Future Shift by Alvin Toffler. It’s been non fiction books for me ever since saving the few Chetan Bhagath books and the Bobanum Moliyum’s (I still adore this). I do realize that some people find non fiction books a tad boring but the good ones grip me as if im reading an engaging fiction piece.

I also did read the entire Diary of a Wimpy Kid series; my nephew is an absolute fan and hence I had bought a full set to gift him. Well, what can I say, I read one and ended up becoming a fan and reading the full pack.

Engrossed in Diary of a wimpy kid

The objective of this post is to share some of the book titles that have made a very profound impact on me, along with one key concept addressed in each book. In other words, this is my highly recommended list. These books made me rethink.

1. Linchpin by Seth Godin

1. Linchpin by Seth Godin

This book just asks you to be remarkable. There is a chapter in which he talks about the concept of a lizard brain and how do we tame it. Quite powerful.

2. What got you here wont get you there by Marshall Goldsmith

This book is as much about unlearning, as much is it about relearning. It essentially talks about managing success and making the most out of it. It provides a very fresh and different perspective to how you go about things.

3. The 4 hour work week by Tim Ferriss

I don’t think any book has impacted me so much as this one. This is the only book that I have re-read. Guess that says it all. His ruthless approach to hacking your lifestyle and methods to achieve insane levels productivity and effectiveness is simply awesome. Best part being that, he actually shows you how you can get it done with specific implementation and action steps

4. You can sell by Shiv Khera

For all those of you who are looking at selling anything, be it an insurance policy or yourself at a job interview, I would have to say this book is a gem. Simple, methodical and giving the strong message about the discipline and dedication that it takes to excel at selling and in life in general. To its credit, this book also details it out at an implementation level with specific examples

5. Im feeling lucky by Douglas Edwards

Quite honestly, I didn’t have any great hopes when I brought this book. But to my amazement, this book has been a revelation. Totally captures a whole new philosophy of how we approach work in the digital age aka the classic startup culture. Im feeling both dazed and amazed by the stories from the early days of Google detailed out in the book.

This post wont exactly be complete without a reference to few other books as well that deserve mentioning. These titles were also ones that really impacted me but since I forced myself to pick the top 5 for the post, I had to sort of leave them out. Here goes.

  1. Rich dad, poor dad by Robert Kiyosaki (I have the Cashflow game too :)
  2. Rework by 37 signals
  3. 100 dollar startup by Chris Guillebeau
  4. Future Shock by Alvin Toffler (the complete 3 book series infact)
  5. Managing with power by Geoffrey Pfeffer
  6. Rise of collaborative consumption by Rachel and Roo
  7. Road less travelled by Scot M Peck
  8. Games people play by Eric Berne

Maybe I should also do posts in which I summarise these books along with specific instances where I used the learnings / examples of how I brought about changes in my life based on that.