6 months of lockdown

As I write this after nearing the 6 months mark of lockdown, I cannot help but think at looking back at how things have changed in the last 6 months or so.

  • Work from home is an accepted norm with remote working at an all time rise. The organizations that could slide into this mode of working have also started realizing the benefits of allowing teams to operate from home. Any teething troubles that were there have been ironed out and I am see teams of all functions coming together on Zoom/Hangouts and making it work.
  • Reverse migration has started. A lot of this working class who can work remotely has opted to move back to their native places. Just to give an example, out of my team of 8 – only one has chosen to stay in the city … the rest are safely back at their native places across the country.
  • Internet penetration and mobile services are at an all time high. The demand for Jio has never been higher with this working class scrabbling to ensure that they have steady connections at home. I see this audience’s demand in Tier-2 and Tier-3 cities ensure that brands and the government focus on building out the infrastructure in remote cities.
  • This would lead to some normalization between demand and supply of all goods across higher and lower tier cities. Take Mumbai for example … in the suburbs or in Mumbai proper, it is hardly a case when you see an electricity outage. As you go outwards, you will start seeing specific load shedding hours and schedules. In the Raigad district, there is atleast one day a week when there is no electricity. As the working class goes back to these cities, either the demand for inverters will go up or the respective local governments would be petitioned to increase the quality of lifestyle.
  • Environment conditions across all cities have drastically improved, the Mumbai air feels cleaner, cooler and taking a walk doesn’t seem oppressive.
  • Organizations whose engagement models involved a lot of physical interaction have started discovering alternative methods and workarounds. Dentists have started using full-body kits, delivery boys have established clear package hand-off protocols, restaurants have started opening up with lower floor space utilization.
  • Cost of basic services and commodities have slowly increased. An annualized inflation of 15-16% looks to be on the cards and the common man is going to bear the brunt of this. Any initiative the government is going to take is only further going to exacerbate this.
  • Industries that have been doing well since lockdown –
    • Food Deliveries
    • E-commerce
    • Agri-tech
    • App enabled services
    • Edtech
    • Fintech
  • Communication apps are at an all time high. Zoom has made it to the top 10 websites in India according to Alexa.com
  • OTT platforms are raking it in with a lot of the younger audiences looking at their smartphones for entertainment. Since there haven’t been any theatre releases, all the movies that were scheduled to be released have started being covered on the OTT platforms. A quick glance at the above list by Alexa informed me that Netflix, PrimeVideo and HotStar were all in the top 20.
  • Big tech firms are going all out to change the way things are. Google pretty much gave all schools free access to Google Classroom. Both my children are using this for their new term this year.

As things start settling down from this massive change in life, I see a resilience being shown by businesses as they start figuring out a way to live and thrive in this economically challenging environment. As a technologist, I see a large need to automate a lot of business processes to keep the wheels of the industry turning.

This is what will keep the world going round.

Life and opportunities post COVID-19

It has been 2 months since we have transitioned to work from home and figuring our way out in this time. I noticed that lifestyle and working style of many of us has changed (perhaps for the better). Here’s a list of some of the highs and lows of life post COVID-19.

The highs

  • Work from home has many benefits. The time saved in transit for one. I have been saving 2 hours of idle time wasted.
  • No household help means more work, but it also means you can save on the household expenses because you were otherwise too busy.
  • You become more aware of the household chores, so does everyone else in the household. That’s a liftime savings of bad habits avoided. Not to mention that a lot of households will not go back to hiring so many household maids. We had 3 for instance.
  • Businesses have been forced to either work remotely, or to re-think their operational models. That has meant a lot of top management mental models have changed. Earlier where physical meetings were the first option (and sometimes the only option), now telephonic and video calls are working.
  • Since physical interaction between people is the way the COVID-19 is spreading, most businesses have figured out a way to work without this physical engagement. That has meant higher operational efficiencies, and also a focus on being more transparent.
  • A more conservative mindset is emerging in the society, with all expenses being more need driven than greed driven. This as meant less wastage and less consumption.
  • A large push has come for online education and self help videos. The OTT segment has really bloomed during this phase, with binge
  • The ecology is improving due to a massive cut in the consumption of fossil fuels. The hole in the ozone layer is now no more, that talks about the scale of the lockdown. What we could not as a generation manage in the past decade, a virus outbreak managed in 2 months.
  • Industries where digital enablement was missing are now the worst affected, and that’s where new opportunities are emerging. These businesses are figuring out a way to operate in post COVID-19 world. Some examples of this – real estate, financial services, banking, automotive, etc.

The lows

  • The economy is in an all-time slump with all non-essential services at a stand still. Getting them back to what they were before this crisis will easily take a year or two.
  • There is now one more excuse to discriminate and divide people
  • Physical exercise and activities for people who need them (me, my kids and parents) have diminished.
  • Non-critical healthcare and luxury item supply chain has been wrecked and acquiring specific brands has become difficult.

In the end

As a teen, I have played the hit series Fallout. I am surprised to note how fast we have shifted into living that way. The only difference is that this crisis is not nuclear, it’s a virus.

We have adapted to keep on living. What remains is how long this will continue and what practices do we keep as the world slowly comes back to normal.

Work from home the new norm

As if taken from a zombiecalypse movie, the coronavirus outbreak (COVID-19) has impacted the entire world in a big way. Without meeting people how does work get done?

How does the economy keep running inspite of the lockdown?

These are the questions plaguing a lot of business owners. Some have continued to brave the outbreak by declaring themselves as essential services. However, take the example of some obviously non-essential services – Real Estate, Information Technology, Financial Services apart from banking. How are these industries to function?

Finding a new mode of working

The obvious answer to this is to find a new operating model. Many organizations were going the digital, or were in the process of doing digital. Now, these organizations are most suited to survive the outbreak.

For pure brick and mortar businesses, transitioning to a new way of working is paramount.

This is where work from home comes into picture. This is not anything new and in the ITES sector, the work from home paradigm has been around for more than a decade now.

However, it was always considered as a secondary mode of working and never the primary.

A new operating model

With most businesses struggling to find a way of working online, more and more tools are being sought for online collaboration.

My wife, Dr. Harshaja who runs 13 Llama Interactive marketing agency created a quick video on some tools that people can use during work from home.

5 Tools for Work from Home by Harshaja Ajinkya

A new day, a new way

The human race is very resilient and always finds a way out. I hope that like all things, this too shall pass.

Until then, lets all herald the new way of working!

Working with markdown and gitbook

For those of you who don’t know yet, I have shifted tracks to heading a tech team in a start-up. This firm focuses on helping first time home buyers with the largest hurdle in home buying, the down payment. HomeCapital is India’s first home down payment assistance program.

At HomeCapital, one of the immediate challenges that I had to face was to understand a myriad of requirements from speaking to the operations team, to the business analysts, to the developers, to some of the customers and even to some of our investors.

Since, the approach is that of a technology platform, it also means that the team had to start worrying about multiple systems all at once. Deciding to move away from one huge monolithic system to a micro-services based architecture was natural.

How does one manage loads of Micro-services?

A major challenge with a spread of micro-services was that the management overhead of systems went up. Different services were in different repos, in different languages and hosted in different methods. Yes, there was an API gateway on top to present a uniform access method for all, but the code management and documentation was a challenge.

Thankfully most popular versioning systems have solved the code management issue. One of the first steps I initiated with this was using the README.md to quickly jot down what the service is supposed to do, and how it functions. This was created more from the point of a new team member who wants to get started with the respective service. You need to be comfortable with Markdown for this. I’ll get to markdown in a minute, but this was a great starting point for me to understand what a developer really needs in the documentation.

As a person overseeing multiple services, it was essential for my team members to quickly pick up the bare essentials and use the documentation available. Having a small entry point in the repo is a perfect way to give access without creating too formal a structure. My choice of working with markdown was made.

What is Markdown?

In case if you do not know what this is, then you mostly haven’t edited a wiki. Markdown language is a super lightweight language that allows one to quickly convert the text into a rich formatted document (such as HTML, PDF, etc). To read more about this, head on to the Wiki on Markdown.

Try practicing using Markdown for some time and you will realize its almost as simple as using notepad or gedit to take down your notes. It also helps you to create a more complex structure and is super flexible for future use-cases.

Generating a usable README.md

For those of you who want to try this out, hop on to Make a README and see the basic placeholder sections needed to make a developer friendly file.

I had by this time quickly written these files and was happy that at least I had some formal documentation available in a system that was fast growing. A side note here – <rant> In most rapidly evolving systems, people often take decisions that they regret later on. This technical debt although is meant to be avoided, but often it just can’t be avoided. As long as you are willing to come back and clear the debt, it’s fine. You could re-think your approach and do it faster in a correct fashion – but then you need to be a lot more mature and I just don’t see that developer maturity yet. This side note will need to be expanded into a separate post of it’s own </rant>

What to do with a cart load of README.md files?

Quickly, I had many individual standalone files sparsely connected to each other. While this was sufficient for a developer to get started, this did not fully cover the breadth and width of the system.

This is where my past experience of working with the WordPress India community helped. The community is building an independent document made of such .md files using gitbook. Gitbook used to be a CLI based command that you could install on your machine and use to build a developer website. This using the very .md files that I now had.

At the time of writing this post, the gitbook CLI is available on npm, however, do note that the site now talks about a version 2, which is not a CLI based offer but is more of a SaaS product with a freemium offering. You could also look at some other alternatives to do this, but the ease of use of the gitbook CLI is to be applauded.

How to get started with gitbook?

  1. Head on to the npm page for gitbook-cli and install this first.
  2. Create a new folder and in the console hit gitbook init
  3. Answer the questions and create your first markdown file
  4. In the console hit gitbook serve and in your browser go to http://localhost:4000
  5. That’s it

Core concepts

Keep in mind the following things –

  • The SUMMARY.md maps to the sidebar on the left hand side. This can be styled and the content of this file pretty much decides the navigation of your gitbook
  • gitbook is extendable through the config file – book.json, not just in look and feel, but also using plugins. My must plugins are – ["collapsible-chapters","insert-logo","image-captions","tbfed-pagefooter","copy-code-button","ga","sitemap","mermaid-gb3"]
  • Create sub-folders for different modules/services
  • Have a list of all entry points in SUMMARY.md
  • Maintain a CHANGELOG.md to have a history of major changes made
  • When a particular module becomes more complex, divide that into more parts and put those parts into nested folders. Do not forget to update the links in the respective .md files
  • Make the respective indents in the SUMMARY.md file as well

Building your gitbook

You can even host this somewhere (such as an S3 bucket or a static hosting). Simply execute the following command –

gitbook build

This will create a new _book folder in your gitbook folder. Host this as the static site.

That’s all there is to it. A simple and easy way to manage an evolving set of markdown files using gitbook.

A fortress of regulations

For the past 6 months or so, I have been involved in building up a fintech based business. You might have seen me post about real estate and how the young Indian workforce needs help to own a house. This organization is HomeCapital which provides home down payment assistance for first time home buyers. In fact, it’s India’s first home down payment program.

The product itself is pretty unique and involves a bit of financial engineering. It’s an unsecured personal loan made available to the home buyer at 0% interest. To know more feel free to drop by our office for a chat and a cuppa!

Business traction and growth

The business is doing well and therefore it has quickly attracted a good set of investors. As we are gearing up for a Series A run, one of the question that I am increasingly seeing in conversations is this –

What technology barriers to entry does your business have?

The first time I heard this question, I was stumped. It’s not as if the core product was a technology driven product. Given enough time and money, any competent person should be able to build any of the following systems –

  • Loan origination
  • Application management
  • Loan management
  • Customer Relationship Management

These are business support systems, and they will never be a technology differentiator. The simple reason being that there are too many service providers and SaaS products out there which provide alternatives for them.

Yes, I could always claim a better UX, a robust and secure system. However, these are fast becoming hygiene factors and thanks to cloud based solutions fast becoming a commodity.

How does this impact a relatively new industry?

Read on. It’s a good case of how the mayor of Paris has decided to take matters in her hands in order to stop an overcrowding of a young industry.

There are a dozen electric scooter companies operating in Paris right now. There are so many that the Mayor just announced that she will reduce that number to three with new rules for electric scooters in Paris.

via Low (No) Barriers To Entry — AVC

Artificial barriers are being constructed in order for three of the businesses to be sustainable. The young electric scooter industry is being protected in this case by Paris.

Very similar to this, the FinTech industry in India is relatively young, and the Government of India has taken an active interest in this. One of the instances where the banking and lending industry in India was protected was where RBI drastically changed the P2P startup landscape by limiting individual investors to 10 Lakh INR.

Most developing countries are taking this approach for multiple industries. A wait and watch approach with a beady eye on the innovations and changes ensures that most policies that are being passed are in situ with the economic environment.

Protecting lush markets

What the mayor has beautifully done is protect the largest european market of electric scooters. One reason for more than a dozen startups to spring up in this market was that it was fairly easy for someone to join a business, learn the ropes and then start on their own. However, what will happen if one of these fly by night operations were to suddenly go down under? Suddenly the entire market starts stumbling. Would you as a governing body allow this to happen?

No. I would rather have 3-4 stable operators providing this service as opposed to 12-15 firms. It’s regulation, yes. It’s against the natural laws of economy, yes. However, it is being done to protect the market. Over a period of time this triopoly will try creating a seller’s economy, however the regulation will ensure that no one player can generate super normal profits. This creates a pretty strong barrier. An impregnable fortress of regulations that cannot be overcome.

India and FinTech

If you now look at the FinTech industry in India, then there are many regulations. This is not so much a concern as much as the fact that these regulations keep evolving as the industry evolves.

Take the fact that since September 2018 the Aadhar based KYC norms have come to a standstill. It is only last week that the RBI has allowed for e-KYC to be re-initiated. Now through in a recent trend such as DeepFake in their, and now you have regulators in a dizzy. What the major players in banking and lending are doing is looking up to the regulator to take decisions … these decisons are being taken over a long period of time (approximately 6 months in the case of e-KYC).

That’s two business cycles. Enough time for an upstart to start-up. India is a lare country and we haven’t really started making fintech products for the 66% of the non-english speaking Indians. There is hope of growth there, and hence the regulation barriers will be slowly built in that area.

Is a barrier needed?

A barrier to entry is needed when the market becomes small and the players have to compete for transactions. However, what is unique about billion people economies such as India and China is that the sheer volume of users is so high that there is always room for more.

Even in such a space where every month there is a new lender or two cropping up, the Indian real estate and lending space still remains under utilized. Housing for all still remains a distinct dream, and until then, instead of building barriers, perhaps we might want to think about building bridges.

Comfort Zones

In case, if you haven’t really been following my blog, I generally tend to write about tech, games, some personal thoughts, some thoughts about my work at 13 Llama and some analytics.

What I do not write about is Design … be it any design. Systems design, Visual Design, Brand Design … even solutions design. I know for certain that I have a certain unhealthy fear of engaging with the design. So much so that it has now become a mental barrier in my head. Staying away from creativity isn’t necessarily bad since we do a lot of analytical and logical work. Having said that, breaking down problems into smaller bite-sized tasks is now a child’s play and there has become a comfort zone. So much so, that over the past few months I had started to think that we should focus on driving more business in these areas.

What does one do when one doesn’t have an option?

Of late though, some of the mandates we have been getting involved us having to work with and also having to define the design specifications. Some of our new team members were pretty gung-ho about working on design specifications instead of a pure play numbers game.

To add to that, at pretty much the same time, we had a couple of our main clients request that we get involved at a higher level and help guide the marketing briefs.

We could have chosen to keep focused on the analytics niche and not step up to the mantle. However, we decided to step out of our comfort zone and things have been taking an interesting turn.

Stepping out of comfort zones

This often involves stepping into a chaotic situation, spending some time taking stock and then working on multiple fronts and more often than not in an iterative manner. From an engagement point of view, it takes a special sort of client to work with. An organization which understands that is an organization that is also in a sense working out of its comfort zone.

This also means that the team which is actively engaged in stepping out of its comfort zone is very very focused on the purpose at hand.

Instead of worrying about things such as appraisals, office times, leaves and petty office politics, the team is then focused on doing what it takes to get the job done. The line of comfort just disappears and shit gets done.

Organizations and comfort zones

For a lot of organizations, functional teams end up becoming comfort zones. An example of this is when there are functional silos in a firm and cross-functional exchanges do not happen as smoothly as expected. This is when both the functions engaging are not stepping out of their zone of comfort. Unfortunately, we have all experienced the adverse effects when customer-facing teams do not step out of their comfort zone.

This severely impacts their ability and sometimes even the intent to engage. Symptoms of this condition are cases where the customer-facing teams cite company policies, or often play the victim, or end up misinforming or lying to the customer. This builds a trust deficit within and without the system.

What can organizations do?

Foster a culture of experimentation and over-delivering value. Sometimes force teams to work outside the zone of comfort. Align teams to the grandiose scheme of things and how their mundane job is, in fact, a purpose-centric activity and not a functional silo.

As a concluding note, assuming people are willing to often step out of their comfort zones is such a positive mindset that the rewards of the mindset alone are worth the efforts of stretching one’s boundaries. Over the past few months, I have seen my fledgling teamwork outside their comfort zones, get over their initial mental barriers and come out for the better. The decision to step out of my own comfort zones has been definitely worth it!

 

A female Stanford labor economist urges graduates to avoid the trap of “trying to have it all” — Quartz

Graduation speeches are usually brimming with optimism and idealism. Be your best self. Lean in. Make your dream work. Myra Stober, a labor economist and professor emerita of education at Stanford University, took a different tack, offering Stanford’s graduate school of education students hard truths and pragmatic strategies for managing work-life balance. “You can harmonize…

via A female Stanford labor economist urges graduates to avoid the trap of “trying to have it all” — Quartz

Finally a person who sees things the way I do.

Work and Family are two institutions which require a full time commitment. Having a balanced way of life doesn’t really help maximize on either of the two fronts. Unless, your significant other and you work towards fulfilling each others’ career goals.