Commoditisation of Web Development

While I’m fairly technical I could not have created responsive websites for http://www.delhishoppingtour.com/ or http://www.vkelectric.com/ without wordpress. I did this in just a few hours of my free time and have had great success with these sites. And, this blog is also on wordpress.org. I dont think I will pay anyone to create websites for me unless they were really complicated or required some insane level of customisation or security or high level of design.

This thought was echoe’d recently by Chris Hardie in his “The end of website development” post and has been discussed here on hacker news. The comments are enlightening as they show a crop of developers clinging on to hope of grabbing a larger share of a dwindling market while others agree that what wordpress, squarespace, etc provide is more than just good enough. And if you get a Pro membership, you might be able to bill the clients the same as you would for a custom site and get it done using wordpress in no time.

The comments also highlight how the web is becoming less and less transparent and open be being gamed by companies with perverse incentives. I’m sure you’ve found yourself on a dynamically generated web page that contains a lot of crap around your search string. I know I have.

 

 

 

Planet Money T-Shirt project

As a fan of Planet Money, I was really pleased that they are getting on with their T-Shirt project even though its taken them 3 years to get to this stage. But.. what really struck me was the level of engagement they have with their community and how they were able to raise over half a million dollars on kickstarter.com for this project.

Considering that NPR’s This American Life has about 200,000 listeners, I assume Planet Money would have about 100,000. Of this 20% or 20,000 people paid $590,807 for the T-shirt. This is a contribution of about $30/subscriber. This is pretty staggering and demonstrates both the power of an engaged audience and of KickStarter, which is owned by Amazon.com

Unfortunately, I was a day late and could not order the T-Shirt.

Meetings galore

One of the biggest issues in working out of India for a US based company is late night and early morning meetings. Really … India is as far as you can travel from the US without traveling back.

So either you are up early or you are working through your evening 8:30PM-11:30PM trying to sort through issues with the US counterparts. These meetings are essential for the project and for your professional growth. As a Product Manager, you should be seen as the face of the product and hence you need be make yourself available for all roadmap review meetings etc with the business unit heads as needed.

In my many years of working with the US company, I’ve been able to manage my work life balance by using the following guiding principles:

  • Give up one night a week for meetings instead of short spans of time on every other night
  • Consolidate meetings back to back on this night
  • Don’t be shy to ask the US team for an evening meeting
  • Skew evening meetings based on where most attendees are so that you can maximise attendance
  • Say no to any unnecessary or agenda less meetings

Its a well known fact that issue resolution and relationship building is faster over the phone, in person that over email. Changes are high that if you stick to working via email you will not receive information via informal channels in the organisation. These channels are always faster than the formal ones.

 

Why I don’t quit?

I’ve read so many motivational blogs and books that encourage you to quit your job and be everything you think you can be. Here are some examples of these works:

  • John Acuff’s Quitter Conference: http://www.jonacuff.com/blog/events/
  • Four Hour Work Week: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/

Personally I’ve found a lot of the ideas in the 4HWW fantastic and original (dreamline and the dreamline worksheet) but some of them don’t work if you already live in a low cost economy like India and one is just wrong. This is when Tim Ferriss says that everyone hates their job. I don’t.

Here are the reasons I stay at my job:

  • I can significantly impact the life of  millions of users of my product as they use my product 8hrs a day or more. I can’t have that scope in my own small company
  • I can compete globally on a level playing field with the best in the industry yet work out of India
  • I can be very creative and work with a very capable team. I may never be able to build this in my company
  • I make a great living without any of the risks that come with starting a business or owning an established business

But I want to temper this enthusiasm too. Here are the issues I wrestle with when I think about quitting:

  • I’m not building a personal legacy yet. This blog is my first attempt at building a presence independent of my employer
  • I have a lot of support in a large company, will I be able to succeed on my own? Am I becoming too soft working for a large company, is the challenge gone?
  • I dont think the company can give me the level of ownership I want in the long run. This is mostly because of structural issues. So maybe I should quit

As you can see I keep wrestling with this question. And I dont have the answer right now. Perhaps I feel that time to quit is not now and that I will intuitively know when it is time to pursue something new. I’m coming up on 10 years at the same company now. I’ve been lucky to play different roles in this company every 3 years and that made these 10 years really wonderful.

 

Great day as a Product Manager

As a product manager based in India, its great when your product gets centre stage at a worldwide conference in the US. This happened to me last week and it made all the struggles over the last 8 months worth it. But the real heroes are the engineers on the product team. They put in the real work to realise, shape and rationalise management’s vision. It was gratifying to send pictures and emails to the team letting them know that their work mattered and is being showcased at the highest level.

It’s only after shipping that the real analytical work begins as we try to answer the following questions:

  1. Are people using the new features?
  2. If yes, how much are they using it?
  3. What amount of use makes an investment in a feature worthwhile?
  4. Are these features bringing new users to the product? – If this was a goal for the release.
  5. Are the new features usable?

I try to get question #5 answered via prerelease testing but all the other questions are truly answered only after the product reaches the customers hands. I know that #4 was not a goal for this release.

Q3 is always tricky. Sometimes you invest way more resources into a feature that you anticipated at the beginning of the cycle. This is just the engineering truth. You discover usability issues late or the engineering team discovers workflow issues that we did not think of before hand.

Sometimes you find a single bug or a performance issue that prevents you from shipping a feature that you worked on for 4-8 weeks. This is still not bad considering that only a few releases ago we would have wasted many more months of work since we were were following a waterfall approach. Every time I run into such situations I feel proud that we develop software incrementally and send it out to a set of users for testing every month. This validates our assumptions earlier and allows us to discover issues earlier. And, that is worth the pain the process changes bring with them.

Gentlemen Coders, Writers and Musicians

It is interesting to draw a parallel between what has happened in the music industry and what is now happening in the tech and publishing industries. A new breed of professionals, who are really good at what they do and can “hustle”, are giving established companies are hard time in all these industries.

On a long walk with one of my previous managers in San Francisco last week, we discussed a new generation of coders, who he called “Gentlemen Coders”. He described them as :

  • Self employed developers paired up with a good designer
  • Via the app stores,they sell directly to customers
  • No desire for world domination – just building the best product they can
  • Value their time and quality of life over a desire for just money
  • Can hustle and get attention to their products

He moaned how he would have loved to be able to do this when he got out of college 25 years ago. He told me of story where he sold his product’s rights to a publisher and then when the publisher went bankrupt, he could not sell his product – period. His product had become a property of the lenders to the bankrupt publisher and its fate had to be decided in bankruptcy court.

I see many interesting products being created by gentlemen coders. See:

And, this way of developing software is significantly faster and cheaper than how established software companies develop products. Gentlemen coders are very closely tied to their customers and have complete control of the pace and direction of development. Thus, they seem to respond faster to customer demands and update when they are ready not when “everyone in the company” is ready.

So, is it game over for large software companies or publishing houses? I dont think so. But, this new way to develop software should attract a lot of talented, fresh out of college graduates towards starting their own companies. Working for a large innovative software company is so 2007. 🙂

Its much easier to build out a product idea that excites you and then take it to market via the app stores today than it ever was. These stores are hyper-competitive though and knowing how to hustle will be the differentiator between success and failure.

Music Book Publishing Software
Publishing Channel(s) Own website Kindle, e-Books App Stores (apple and android)
Successes Jonathan Coulton Hugh Howes AirServer
Hustle methods
  • Free give a aways
  • Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial license
  • Blogging
  • Sending free copies to reviewer
  • Building the first 1000 fans
  • Social Media
  • Posting to the forums
  • Experimenting with App pricing

–Anubhav

 

Quirky and GE

Pretty cool way to innovate while riding on the “internet of things” theme.

http://www.quirky.com/ge?utm_source=Quirky&utm_campaign=b576ba10fa-Quirky_GE_Partnership_Announce4_9_2013&utm_medium=email

I have a lot of regard for Quirky and its clear that GE could do with some help in this area by asking the community for help and using Quirky’s different and innovative product development process.

 

–Anubhav

The Pace of Technology – Digital Music, Redigi & Copyright law

If you are a below 35 chances are that you are buying or have bought digital media like music, movies, ebooks etc on iTunes, Amazon or any other digital marketplace. But, I dont think you have realised that can’t sell it or pass it on to you kids, as you could in the past.

Physical media is easy to resell and pass on and rent. And, its legal since its covered by the first-sale doctrine in the USA and similar laws in other countries. Digital media, as of today cannot be resold or passed on. That said, I see no way of really enforcing this as I can pass on any music and movies I own. So, this is all very confusing.

Apple says that you cannot burn music bought from iTunes to a CD but you can copy it to a USB drive – really!  Thankfully, the idea of protecting music was dropped by Apple in 2009. So, now you can burn any purchased music to a CD or copy or it to a USB drive, which means that purchased media is no longer tied to your machine and can be passed on to anyone – but not legally. And, you still cannot sell it.

Selling “used” digital music just like to could sell used records or CDs is not legal but Redigi is fighting hard to build a marketplace for used digital media. I just do not see them succeeding because used digital goods are exactly the same as the original. They do not age or scratch or stop playing unless the format goes away, like minDV for example. So, it will always be better to buy the same asset cheaper on redigi than from the publisher or the record label. Now, the way redigi works is not completely unencumbered. There’s way too much big brother code it in to make it worthwhile to use this service right now. I do not want them to track what music I own and how I secured access to the digital media files on my machine.

So… technological pace has once again overwhelmed laws and judiciary. As of right now, they judges are trying to figure out how to interpret old laws like the first sale doctrine, in 2012-2013, without giving too much power to the copyright owner. The recent ruling gives the publisher monopolistic rights on digital content. So, it seems like its game over for Redigi.

Redigi has come up with Redigi v2.0 -using the pace of tech to its advantage – and will try to appeal this ruling. I think they’ll burn out of capital and engineers before they see a favorable ruling.

If this intrigues you, listen to this podcast from NPR’s planet money that does a great job of explaining the issue and see Redigi

–Anubhav

Typical travel

Travel is a key part of a product managers job. Especially if you have worldwide responsibility for your product.

So why do we travel so much:

The biggest bucket is to meet with customers to

  • Understand how they use the product, which is normally different from how you envisioned it 🙂
  • Bounce of new product and feature ideas
  • Idea discovery

The other bucket is office visits for

  • Discussing and presenting product roadmaps
  • Politicking or gathering support for your ideas
  • Building relationships with folks with influence in the office

Final bucket is outward facing product management function that require you to travel to:

  • Train sales team
  • Ensure marketing messaging is consistent with product features
  • Meet with press, bloggers and influencers

 

As much as I enjoy traveling, here’s how travel can get taxing. I spent almost 16/52 weeks outside India last year. I’ve already traveled almost once a month in the first quarter of 2013. Here is my travel calendar for the last 15 months and the coming 3

Date Country Duration
Jan-12 US & UK & Ireland 2 weeks
Feb-12
Mar-12 NZ 2 weeks
Apr-12 US & Malaysia 3 week
May-12 UK & Germany 1 week
Jun-12 France & US 2 weeks
Jul-12
Aug-12 US 1 week
Sep-12 US & Netherlands 2 weeks
Oct-12
Nov-12
Dec-12 US 1 week
Jan-13 Japan 1 week
Feb-13
Mar-13 Thailand & Maldives 10 days
Apr-13 US 1 week
May-13 US 1 week
Jun-13 US 1 week

eCommerce Trends India – eBay

Really cool stats from eBay India in their 2012 census.

See:http://shopping.ebay.in/census/index.php

Here is what stood out for me:

Delhi, Mumbai were followed by Jaipur as the 3rd ranked city. This beat Bangalore, which was 3rd in 2011.

Top ranked states had Maharashtra followed by Delhi

Maharashtra is selling

  1. Men’s Fragrances
  2. Tablets
  3. Laptop Skins
  4. Sewing Machines
  5. Headphones

And, Exporting:

  1. Gemstone Pendants
  2. Decorative Crystals
  3. Skirts
  4. Razor Blades
  5. Wrist Watch Straps

Weird that razor blades are ranked so high.

Finally, they are buying

  1. Tablets
  2. Data Cables
  3. Men’s Fragrances
  4. Indian Stamps Miniatures
  5. Smart Phones

Which is consistent with every other big market. Most folks in India seem to be interested in buying smartphones

Bunch of other really interesting data here: http://shopping.ebay.in/census/pdf/eBay_Census_Guide_2012.PDF