Technology is not a silver bullet

As someone who has led the technology function in multiple start-ups, sometimes as a founder, sometimes as a consultant (a consulting CTO), one of the key learnings that I have seen is that whenever technology is viewed as a silver bullet to all the problems of the business, then that start-up is bound to face a lot of scale up hiccups.

What is a silver bullet?

A silver bullet was considered the only way to kill a werewolf. The term therefore is used as a magical solution to a difficult problem. In India, we have another such term … रामबाण

So, a solution which takes care of your problems.

What does technology represent?

When I refer to technology, I am not using this as a generic term. This is specifically intended to mean information technology resources … including machines, people, code and systems.

Technology usually represents scale through automation. It does not neccessarily mean problem solving. The solution to the problem that technology has to solve, is usually a process, or a product.

This product or process usually has to be designed. This design is not necessarily the domain of someone who knows information technology. Usually, a person who knows the business pretty well is able to do better design, as opposed to a person who can code.

Design requires engagement

Engagement with the problem so that the solution can be found. Therein lies the problem.

Now if the technology team that is within the organization knows the business well enough and if they are willing to engage with the problem at hand, then a proper solution can be designed.

Technology + Business could possibly do this

More often that not, technology resources are not business centric. They are “requirements” centric. I am being a bit harsh, but this is so rampant in India that IT leaders need to start rethinking the way they engage with the business. Perhaps a small business centric subject be included in the engineering courses.

Some symptoms of this problem

However, until business and technology do not partner on an equal ground, this problem will always be seen. What problem you may ask … here are some symptoms of this, folllowed by what typically happens with such teams.

  • An entrenched technology team which is in a “victim” mode all the time. They do not have any control on what work they are doing, and have no say in the business.
  • A rigid technology team which raises a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy for all incoming tasks. Forms need to be filled in triplicate, and multiple documents need to be created and this is then project managed by a committee. A line of code requires a months paperwork.
  • A technology team that’s viewed as nincompoops or defunct because of their lack of being effective and responsive to the business. Inspite of having inhouse resources, different team chose to outsource work to their vendors.
  • An overworked team that’s loaded with so much work that they just don’t care about meeting deadlines or creating something of value. Testing is haphazardly done, rarely things get documented, cowboy coding is rampant.
  • A risk averse team that lacks the confidence to do great things. Inspite having inhouse capabilities, no one is willing to risk their neck and therefore chooses to outsource to vendors.

When you notice such teams in a start-up, more often than not, that start-up is not going anywhere. Until and unless the team and the business undergoes a severe change in attitudes towards each other, the team is not going achieve shit.

Such a technology team is not a silver bullet, they are a white elephant.


What’s the real price for free?

I loved this quote by Tristan Harris in the New York Magazine article The Internet Apologizes … “We cannot afford the advertising business model. The price of free is actually too high. It is literally destroying our society, because it incentivizes automated systems that have these inherent flaws. Cambridge Analytica is the easiest way of explaining…

via The Price of Free is Actually Too High — Feld Thoughts

Brad Feld, the author of the above piece is a VC at the Foundry Group. He is also a regular blogger, and when you do find the time, do read through his thoughts on entrepreneurship and start-ups.

One of the discussions that I keep having with founders of different start-ups is how the free now, pay later model is slowly making users devalue the product.

The price of free

So what is the price of free?

Think about the product which is being offered for free. If you are using the product, and you have paid a cent, then, there is a good chance that the product might be using you!

Hence the reference to Cambridge Analytica and Facebook in the article. We use this social media platform so routinely, similar to Google … it has permeated into our very lives itself.

The amount of data that the free product therefore has to gather goes up. The data is then churned, and out of that valuable insights are generated.

Or else, they could simply sell the data!!

Really? Isn’t this illegal? Who does that?

Take places in this world where privacy laws are so draconian, or take countries where the common man is discovering the beauty of the internet (and its dark sides as well), or take areas where the sheer size and volume of the nation makes it difficult to really control … well anything and everything!

Does that ring a bell?

In India, the IT Act of 2000 has been reigning supreme for the past 18 years. Even then, the average joe out here barely even knows what kind of activity makes him liable for a case under the IT Act. Where the laws are not understood, how do you think the population is going to work react?

They are going to react as per their own personal code of ethics and morality. For some, it would be inline with the IT Act, for some it would be a far cry. Sending corporate data over email to a friend … sure! Email spamming a bunch of email-ids … why not!

A lot of times, since the target (or to use a nobler word – purpose) is known to people, the code of ethics is often kept aside. Let the purpose be achieved, no matter what.

In such a “purpose” driven environment, do you think that cyber crimes and leakage of data is going to be noticed?

Think about the product’s purpose

Now, think about the product.

and it’s purpose.

The initial purpose was to solve a problem. However, now we are giving it for free. The purpose shifts to getting these free users to convert. The problem changes. So does the product.

Remarketing campaigns are launched, I already spoke about this. Conversion Rate optimization is taken up … not to solve the users problem, but to get the user to pay.

I am not saying this should not be done. However, if that’s what’s kept at the center of the product, then the product’s very nature changes. That’s the real price of free.

Tying up loose ends

I consider most phases of my life (and of my career) as specific projects. Projects which have a certain outcome tied to them. Projects which need metrics to track and project closures which have targets to reach.

In this obsession to be objective about things, I got involved in a couple of projects which were of subjective nature.

What are subjective projects?

Subjective projects are those where the progress of that project is dependant on individual opinions and feelings. An example of such a topic could be Career.

Career fulfillment is a subjective thing. For some people a fulfilling career might be a one which involves loads of payment, for some it might involves getting respect from peers, others might look at impact. You get the drift?

It’s not even about individual feelings as well. As a person supporting a family, the subjectivity is made more complex by not only your belief of a fulfilling career, but also your immediate family’s.

Suddenly, that one question – What does your son do for a living? becomes real.

As a parent, I would love some bragging rights about my children’s achievements. That may or may not be aligned with what my children want to do. So, the moot question was how to go about objectively defining success for a subjective topic.

Numbers help

Some key measures of success do help. Let’s stick with the Career example –

  • My son makes a lakh a month
  • I manage a team of 6
  • My daughter has been working with GDFC Bank for over a decade
  • She got an 20% salary hike this year
  • My son runs his own company that employs 100 individuals
  • I wan’t to be able to take atleast 10 days off in a year to interesting destinations around the world

What’s the problem with this subjectivity?

And here’s my problem with this subjectivity thing. It freaking keeps changing the measure of success!

Sometimes it’s years of experience, sometimes it’s people employed, sometimes it’s cash in hand … and there is no clear metric you optimize things for.

The problem in this world, is where the team which decides the success of this subjectivity has not taken the pains of articulating What is Success.

When this is not articulated enough, you tend to optimize Career (in this example) on some parameters which might be an implicit rubric for you, but may not be understood by everyone else. Hence, the need to articulate.

Another example

Here’s one more example which works for most people.

What’s a good life mean for you?

Can you put down metrics on which if you measure your life, you will be able to answer this question?

If yes (and I haven’t done this yet), then are you doing anything which helps you increase those measues?

In life, or in our Career (my last example), we have these tiny niggling doubts at the back of our mind. These are the loose ends I am talking about.

Can we use metrics and measures to answer and squash these doubts. I think so, but to get there, we need to have a definition of what are our measures of success. I used to post my yearly resolutions for a couple of years on this blog, and then I stopped. Primarily, because of this subjective struggle. No one cared how many posts did I put up on the blog (not even me!), so how did it matter that I post one a week or more.

Measure for closure

So, what are good measures of success for the year 2017 for me? And what would the year 2018 be measured against. Well, that’s what I have a month to figure out!

PS – This is a thought experiment I am doing to see if I can indeed wield measurements and analytics for improvement. It’s a belief that I have long held close to my heart, now I am putting it to the test. Those who know me would know that I am fundamentally lazy and putting in these measurements as a life practice involves a certain discipline. That is my personal challenge.

Shiny tools don’t make a purpose

Recently, I bought a Fitbit. It’s a fantastic tool. Now, I can rave more about the features and go on and on. However, a friend and a colleague asked me an interesting question.

Has it changed you?
No, it did not.

Before I go on, I have to tell you that I am on the heavier side of the weighing scale. Those of you who know me personally would be surprised at the sudden interest in all things health. Yeah, I roll like that.

It’s not about the Fitbit

Like any other measurement tool, the Fitbit is doing a marvelous job at letting me know certain metrics that I need to care about.

They have even gamified the steps by putting in cute little badges and built in peer support (and also peer pressure) to keep me motivated. All this is good as it should be.

At the core of it, it’s a measurement tool. Just like any of the billion other tools we use in Analytics.

Targets and Measurements

On very similar lines, we as marketers or as businessmen often deploy shiny new tools because we think they will help us do more.

Unfortunately, like me in this case, how many of us forget on defining the purpose?

I implicitly assumed that the Fitbit would automatically by some magic give me the purpose of losing weight and leading a more healthy life. Without this purpose, here’s what would happen —

I will wear it to work, and dutifully report the steps taken and life would go on as usual. Some of the badges would come in as time goes by, and it would not really matter to me if I took 2000 steps a day (which is a walk in the park) or 10000 steps a day (I haven’t achieved this yet).

How would I change, if let’s say I choose to give myself a target of say, 10000 steps a day.

Without Purpose, there’s no Change

I would for one have to make time to walk those 10000 steps. I could try walking in the office or doing a much more rigorous transit than an Uber. However, I would have to commit to making the time for those steps.

Thus, this choice of making a change in my routine should be addressed. At the heart of it, the shiny new tool is not at the center. Yes, you have bought Google Analytics Premium and all of that is great … but that’s not really at the center.

At the center, is the purpose. Has this been defined? Has this been clarified and articulated so that the team knows about this?

A tool doesn’t give us Purpose

It does give us a sense of progress towards our purpose. A Measure of Success, if you will. The shiny new tool that we just acquired is useful, but only as long as we keep the purpose at the center.

As people who know how to use a tool, if we do not understand the purpose, the tool will end up regurgitating meaningless data.

TL;DR — When setting up measures, don’t keep the tool at the center. Keep the purpose at the center. The rest should follow.

Game Theory and SEO

This blog has been my place to articulate my thoughts, to propose experiments and my views on multiple topics. Having said that, this is one such piece.

I would love to hear your views about this and feel free to scroll down to that comment box and leave a line (or two).

What is Game Theory?

Taking the excerpt from Wikipedia –

Game theory is “the study of mathematical models of conflict and cooperation between intelligent rational decision-makers.” Game theory is mainly used in economics, political science, and psychology, as well as logic, computer science and biology.

In this piece, I am proposing that we can use the basic precepts of Game Theory and apply them to SEO strategies as well.

Originally, it addressed zero-sum games, in which one person’s gains result in losses for the other participants. Today, game theory applies to a wide range of behavioral relations, and is now an umbrella term for the science of logical decision making in humans, animals, and computers.

In Search Engine Optimization, for a particular query search, only one site can be at the top. At the cost of the search visibility of other sites.

Ergo, SEO is clearly a zero-sum scenario.

Wait, isn’t this between two players?

That’s what we construe of Game Theory … and more importantly with Prisoner’s Dilemma. However, in the real world, and in almost any market driven environment, there are always multiple players.

Such scenarios are referred to as n-person games, or in Gaming parlance – multi-player games. This gives way to something we define as Evolutionary game theory.

What is Evolutionary Game Theory?

Evolutionary game theory considers games involving a population of decision makers, where the frequency with which a particular decision is made can change over time in response to the decisions made by all individuals in the population.

So, in SEO the strategy that I can adopt at any point of time is suspect to change, and over a period of time, most players who are working on their SEO would tend to change their strategy and evolve their approach.

In economics, the same theory is intended to capture population changes because people play the game many times within their lifetime, and consciously (and perhaps rationally) switch strategies.

Ditto about SEO again. In textbook style, I could say don’t do Black Hat. However, you know it and I know it … that at some point of time in our lives we have done Black Hat. Yes yes yes, it doesn’t work and you have to pay the price, but we still have gone ahead, haven’t we?

This change in tactics, resulting in evolution of market dynamics effectively ends up changing the winning strategies of the game. A research article that talks about how the competing strategies change within a network of decision makers is available here.

To read more on Evolutionary Game Theory, here is the wiki link.

Rituals and Evolutionary Game Theory

One more interesting characteristic that mathematical biologist John Maynard Smith realized when studying the behavior of game theory in communities was that in biological communities (his research was based on Darwinian concepts and survival of the fittest) most of the players did not focus on their strategy as a winning one, but treated their strategies as at a ritualistic level.

Ergo, for most members of the population it was not important whether they were engaged in a competitive and winning strategy, but rather that they were engaged in a strategy in the first place.

Wait, what?

Let me rephrase that statement.

Players involved in playing a multi-player game, where the game itself was changing constantly, the winning strategy was not important for players.

So much, as having a strategy in the first place.

Uh, I thought this was going to be on SEO

It is.

In a game of lets-get-on-top (on Google), all of us marketers are running circles trying to figure out the best SEO strategy.

We have seen many of the oft-quoted paradigms here –

  1. Content is king
  2. Great Link profiling
  3. Black Hat

What I am proposing is that it really does not matter which step you take … as long as you decide to take a step as per a strategy and then choosing to evolve your stance after you find out the result.


Dr. Strange and the case of Disabling Constructs

Dr. Strange is a Marvel Superhero set in the Avengers Universe. The Marvel Comics Universe (MCU) has rolled out a fair number of movies in these past years. Dr. Strange is one of it’s top grossing hits for a single Marvel super hero (beating Iron Man, Ant Man, Thor and Hulk).

Continue reading “Dr. Strange and the case of Disabling Constructs”