Aug 13, 2012

Freedom, finally!

Today, exactly 13 years ago, on Fri, Aug 13th 1999 I landed in this country. It was just before the turn of the millennium and I was so excited about being in this land of freedom and opportunities. To mark my excitement I decided to spend the new year's eve in NY. And like every tourist does, I visited the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island and remember reading about how Ellis Island was the door to numerous people that made it to America. All they had to do was just show up, cough two times to prove they don't have any major ailments and their papers were stamped for permanent access to this country. I wondered if my process would be anything like this.

And oh boy, it has taken 13 long, patient, and sometimes frustrating, years to finally get this much desired freedom. Little did I know that this land of freedom will deceive me for so many years. The freedom that unlocks opportunities, freedom to make your own personal and professional choices, freedom to compete on an even footing and to maximize your potential, freedom from arcane immigration rules and its misuse by employers, freedom to create a startup and employee others, freedom … to make this amazing country even more amazing! I never imagined that it would be nothing like the previous generations who breezed through Ellis Island. It took many tribulations, lot of waiting and many sacrifices to get to this finish line. Now finally, (finally!), I am done with the long wait and have obtained my permanent resident status.

For those unfamiliar, I refer to freedom as obtaining the permanent resident status, commonly known as the green card. Here is a long list of small and big things this freedom can help one get.

Why do I care to write about this? Because the immigration rules are broken and has full of holes that is misused by many. And if you are caught on the wrong side of it, you are screwed for many, many years. All of this barely matters if you just want to do a job and save some money. But if you want to live the American dream, start a company, do something world changing - reality strikes. You are just not allowed until you get your green card. Now that I am on the other side, I hope to not only make good use of it but also be a voice against the broken rules.

I am super excited about the prospects that come with this freedom. For starters, I am soon quitting my mundane day job and deciding to startup. Do something different, take the risk. As an immigrant I wake up every day thinking just one thing "GO BIG OR GO HOME". So here I come America!

Jun 10, 2012

Have you thought of the unlucky ones?

Recently Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball and The Liar's Poker, gave an inspring talk at the Princeton commencement. He talks about the importance of understanding the element of "luck" in your life. It's very easy to feel "entitled" to all the things that you have achieved. It's easy to attribute success to your own abilities and forget the role of luck. So it's important to remember how lucky you have been. There are many ways you end up lucky.

You could be lucky to be born in a safe and strong country
You could be lucky to be born to caring, supportive parents
You could be lucky enough to get into a good school

So the main message is to be thankful to the unlucky ones. And often times they are folks who have been behind you, directly or indirectly, helping you get where you have got. Here are a few ways to take care of some of the unlucky ones.

1. There are a lot of "support" people who might have helped you get you where you are. Teachers, clerk at your dad's office, office staff, maids, uncles, aunts, advisors, friends and many more. Don't forget them. And some of them do it without having much of their own. Set aside a small gift for your nanny who took care of you in your early years as she may be going through tough times today.

2. People born in difficult countries and families. Loan small amounts through Kiva. Most of your money just sits in the bank. Why not set aside $200 towards helping people around the world? And the best part is that the loan repayment is upwards of 99%!

3. Academically brilliant kids who can't afford to get into a school or college because of lack of financial resources. Or in many cases, just the lack of guidance and advise. For kids in India, you could "Adopt a Scholar through Foundation for Excellence" and fund their college education.

4. At a minimum, just think of those friends and supporters who made a small impact in your life. Just remember, that besides your own abilities, there is some role played by lady luck. Do this so you don't lose your own humility and learn to share the "extra cookie".

(Scroll directly to 10:55 to listen to the extra cookie research).

Mar 17, 2012

Adopt a Scholar, and Make a Difference

Are you interested in making a difference in the life of a high performing but financial needy student? In India there are thousands of students each year that work hard and aspire to get into a top college. For many, it's not just a ticket to a decent job, for many it's their only hope of rising out of poverty. But there are so many that in spite of performing really well in their exams can not go to college because they just can't afford it or can't qualify for a loan.

Recently I found a cool initiative called Foundation for Excellence ( that has created a program that provides scholarships to such needy students and helps them to go through college. The program invites donors, often NRIs, to adopt one of the many students they shortlist each year. The students are picked by a network of volunteers that identify such needy students and ensure that their need is genuine. The foundation has been doing this since 18 years and they have made a huge difference in the lives of over 11, 000 students. Here are some of the detailed stats. It's good to see that women students are well represented.

The best part is that the donor can engage and mentor the scholar over the 4 or 5 year period of the scholarship. They have many success stories of students that have excelled in their academics and went on to pursue fruitful professional careers which might not have happened without these donors and this program. I adopted a scholar this year for the first time and he is from my home town Chennai. I am looking forward to see how this young guy shapes his life from here on.

Feb 28, 2012

Message for young BITSians: Now is a great time to startup!

I have recently been talking to many, many young BITSians (students & alumni of BITS Pilani). Some of them are still on campus dabbling with a cool project. While some have embarked on a startup idea soon after graduating. And still there is a large camp that is on the edge deciding whether they should do a startup or not. Or is waiting for the next big thing to land in their lap. And some are struggling with the internal conflict deciding whether they have the risk appetite.

I would like to tell this camp that there are a lot fewer reasons now to not do a startup. BITS Pilani alumni along with help from the institute has just launched a brand new initiative called BITS Spark. Spark's mission is to help the BITSian entrepreneur, whether they are still a student or have already launched into the real world. It has a lofty vision to become one of the top-3 institutes for entrepreneurship in Asia. Spark supports entrepreneurs and startups through three key pillars - Spark Connect, Spark Mentors and Spark Angels.

Spark Connect: If you want to triage your startup idea, want to validate your initial approach, are looking to round out a team, want to learn the basics of startup creation or would like to connect with the BITSian ecosystem - this is where you start. This is the stage where you can build the confidence to jump off the cliff and take the "startup" plunge.

Spark Mentors: For a young team, nothing is more valuable than coaching and mentoring. If you are a novice founder you could match up with a mentor who can coach you. If you are at a somewhat advanced stage, a seasoned mentor can advise you on strategic issues or connect you with that crucial customer you need for a big break.

Spark Angels: And if you already have some traction, have built a great team and are looking for the financial impetus to get to the next stage, leverage the BITSian network of angels to invest in your dream.

Now is as good a time as one can get in India to pursue their startup dream. Don't be caught up in the drill to build a fancy resume. Don't short change yourself for something you are only half interested in. Think hard about what you are passionate about. Then find a really big problem that needs to be solved in that area. And then go find an amazing solution to fix that problem. And while you do that, take comfort in the fact that the BITSian ecosystem is behind you to help you win!

Dec 29, 2011

What Books Did You Read in 2011?

Here is a list of books I read in 2011. It spans across various topics from fiction, startups, war history, biographies and inspiration. Would love to hear what others have read. Please share your reads in the comments section below.

Long Walk to Freedom: This is Nelson Mandela's autobiography that he wrote while he was in prison for 27 years. It's an inspiring and informative read about the life of one of the best known freedom fighters of recent times. Mandela's grit, determination and perseverance are inspiring. It's also a good book to learn about apartheid and some South African history. I didn't know that South Africa achieved freedom only in 1994!

The Last Lecture: This is a book by Randy Pausch, a Carnegie Mellon professor who died of pancreatic cancer. The book is about his life and mostly about how he faced the last days with a positive attitude. It's an easy read and a good reminder of our mortality and how to make the most of our time on earth.

Where Good Ideas Come From: Steven Johnson talks about 7 factors that lead to great ideas. What is unique is the observation that both nature and humans are influenced by the same 7 factors. These factors are "The Adjacent Possible", "The Slow Hunch", "Liquid Networks", "Serendipity", "Error", "Exaptation" and "Platforms". While evidence is weak some times, it still does a great job of explaining the source of good ideas.

Forever War: Dexter Filkins is a NY Times correspondent who followed the Iraq war firsthand and chronicles the day-to-day life of being in a war. It's an unbiased view of this war. It particular elucidates the challenges of dealing with an "enemy" that has no face. The sectarian violence made it so difficult to make any progress towards peace. But what touched me most was the story of a soldier who lost his life in the process of saving the author. This book firms up my belief that this war will come back to bite in a big way.

Do More Faster: David Cohen and Brad Feld are the founders of TechStars and they bring together the stories of various TechStars startups. I liked the style of the book as it brings real experiences of these teams and has a practical feel to it. A must read before your first startup.

SEAL Team Six: Howard E Wasdin was a Navy Seal part of the highly coveted Team Six. This team's selection process is more stringent than regular Navy SEALs. The team is deployed for the most critical and dangerous operations conducted by the US Navy. Wasdin shares his stories about the rigorous training and his sniper mission in Somalia. A great peek into the brilliant training system of the US Navy.

Grumby: Andy Kesller writes a humorous and exciting fiction about a valley startup that makes a personal assistant called Grumby. It's a fun read that depicts the highs and lows of a startup in the valley. Fun!

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson writes a brilliant mystery plot about a missing girl who was lost several years ago. It is a gripping read and I couldn't keep the book down until I finished.

Disrupting Class: Clay Christensen writes this book to highlight the various challenges and issues with the education system world over but particularly in the USA. He writes about the importance of self-paced, customized learning systems. He goes on to suggest how, in the next few years, technology will disrupt an archaic industrial-age education system. It adapts various concepts from his innovation books (Innovator's Dilemma, Innovator's Solution).

The Art of War: This is supposed to be a classic by Sun Tzu on war and business strategy. But I have never been able to appreciate the book as it seems too abstract. Also it seems that the various adaptations out there are not fun and simple enough. Couldn't complete it.

Crush It: Gary Vaynerchuk writes an easy read on how to do what you love. And he also writes about creating your personal online brand using social media tools. A good reference for someone getting started.

The Lean Startup: Eric Ries has nailed it! In this book he applies the logic and approach of experimentation with prime objective of optimizing resources at a startup. It is the best way to approach your startup or a new product when creating innovative products where the target users and markets are often unclear. The Build-Measure-Learn cycle is a simple and effective framework to structure your hypothesis and then experiment to prove and measure your learnings. A must read for any startup team.

Steve Jobs: 'Tis the season and so I had to read it :) Walter Isaacson does an excellent job of capturing the colorful life of Steve. It was also fun to learn some history of computing and Job's contributions in the 80s and 90s. It also has a lot of juicy anecdotes about the genius. Awesome!

The Color of Water: James McBride writes his experiences as a son of a Jewish mother and a black father. It's an amazing American story setup in New York. It's a tribute to his mom about the tough times she went through in 1930s as a mother of 10 children. An inspiring and touching personal story.

I Was Blind But Now I See: James Altucher writes about the path to discovering true happiness by first discovering oneself. I am still reading it so let's see where it goes.

Overall, I am quite happy with the books I read this year. Like always, I wish I could read more but this is what I could get through. I have a great line up of books for the coming year but would love recommendations too. Have a great 2012!

Nov 14, 2011

Switching to Mac? Consider this first.

I switched to Mac from Windows 7 about 7 months back. Now that I've given myself sufficient time to adjust to this new OS, let me share my experience with it. Hopefully this will help some of you decide whether you should switch or not.

I got a Mac Book Pro 13'' with dual core Intel Core i7 processor, 500 GB, Snow Leopard. The specs are quite mind numbing compared to some of the other computers I have had before. And because I had a great experience with my iPad and my wife's iPhone, my expectations were quite high already. However, my hopes dashed pretty soon. I am just not able to love this puppy as much as I wanted to. I quite like all the hardware stuff (design, camera, screen etc.). But the software and app support has largely been disappointing.

First 30 secs: The packaging was immaculate. It felt good opening this thing! The aluminum body is beautiful and the screen is spectacular. The overall design, ports, power cable design, the little camera are all amazing! Hardware is just brilliant. The 'get started' screens that help you setup the initial stuff was ok, nothing impressive. It asked me to setup TimeMachine which I had no clue what it was so I just skipped it. BUT don't go by the first impressions as what followed after this was just not fun :(

Things I love:
* Spotlight: This search is "really fast", helps find/start apps quickly, can locate documents quite well, does a pretty good job with various file types including email.
* Body: The aluminum case is a beauty, keyboard's pretty nice and quiet, the backlight is nice, the ports are well designed all on one side, the power cable is so beautiful.
* Camera/Mic/Audio: The quality of camera, mike and audio is superb. I use it with Skype and to listen to music. The audio/video quality is great with this stuff.
* Battery: Battery lasts for hours together at least for now while it's new. Can go on for a busy half-day without having to plugin.
* Preview: It loads PDF documents quite fast, it shows file previews quite quickly for all the documents in Finder. I wonder how it does it so fast!
* Power cord: Like the compact power cord and the hooks to wrap the cable.
* Dictionary: I like the integrated dictionary so I can look up words easily on spotlight.
* Sleep: The laptop sleeps and wakes up very fast. This is something that I hated on Windows (even on Windows 7).

Things I don't love (now comes the gory part!):
* Finder: This is probably the worst thing about my Mac experience and something you need to use quite a bit I suppose. The experience is particularly painful if you are a heavy keyboard person (in my case it used to be almost 90% of usage with keyboard). It's hard to put my finger on the specific issues but let me try: file creation doesn't work, cut/copy/paste are painful (can't use keyboard shortcuts), context menu is not useful, file/folder location is missing, installation windows hide in funny ways etc.
* Heats up a lot! Literally burns that I can't place it on my lap. Seems to happen more so while charging.
* Keyboard shortcuts: These are quite unintuitive and are good for some basic actions. But if you really want to get 90% of your stuff done with keys, forget it. In some cases you have to press 4 keys for an action! Then the keyboard commands vary from one app to another, there is no logic to it, just a lot of memorization.
* Email clients fall short: Mac's Mail app is a non-starter as it didn't even have basic things (like conversations, archiving etc.). Outlook is short on features, UI is kludgy, makes you use the mouse a lot, doesn't support HTML formatting when creating emails, keyboard functions fall short, doesn't integrate with Communicator, conversation view is sub par compared to Windows, signing is missing, email options are missing, and I could go on and on. If anyone can recommend a better client for the Mac I will buy you beer.
* Office apps reduce productivity: Similar to Outlook, the other Office apps fall short on many counts. Doing things on Powerpoint was a lot faster and richer on my Windows 7, same with Word and Excel. I tried switching to iWorks but that software is a non-starter when it doesn't even let you save in PPT format and is short on several features when compared with MS Office.
* Apps crash: Apps crash on the Mac - all the time. Skype crashes all the time on it, MS Office apps crash a whole bunch of times. And "the king of crash iTunes" crashes all the time. I have lost a lot of my work because of this. Mac itself crashed on me once and I had to lose all my work and reboot. And isn't this the number one thing that Mac is supposed to do better than Windows - no crashes and blue screens?
* VPN setup: "It just doesn't work"! Software from Checkpoint and Cisco doesn't install on the Mac. And there are all kinds of geeky forums advising "install version x.x on Mac OS 10.6, but install version y.y on Mac OS 10.5 and then make sure that setting is changed on terminal" etc. etc. Isn't it supposed to be easy?? This is particularly an issue in a Windows heavy environment but is a major issue nevertheless.
* VMWare just doesn't work: I installed VMWare to help me gradually transition to the Mac. But even at the most basic virtual hardware settings, VM runs extremely slow on the Mac. I tried this so many times, turned off apps etc but still - extremely slow. So it doesn't particularly help during your transition from Windows to Mac.
* Standard apps are no better than standard Windows apps: For instance tried using iPhoto and found no compelling reason to use it. I quickly installed Picasa that let's me do a lot more with my pictures. Similarly, iCal or Address Book are such poor featured apps that just don't meet the needs. 
* Time Machine: Can't seem to figure how to use it. Tried backing up on my external drive and it wanted to wipe out everything I had there previously. Retarded!!
* Misfit in a Windows environment: Things feel worse when your corporate environment is all Windows. There is limited support and expertise for many issues you encounter. You also tend to run into a lot more issues because of incompatibilities (e.g. I couldn't change my Windows network password on my Mac and got locked out from my email).
* Maximize: It doesn't do what it's supposed to do - maximize. I believe this is fixed now for Lion.
* Resizing is annoying: You can only resize by holding the bottom right corner. So if you want to expand an app to the left, you first have to move the app to the left and then resize it. Windows lets you resize from all corners and edges.
* Web browser: Safari is quite temperamental. It doesn't want to connect to websites when it's not in the mood. The same link would work just fine with Chrome but Safari will just sit there. It happens at home, it happens at work. And in any case I like Chrome better, although I would say that Chrome on Windows felt faster and was less quirky. And of course, many websites are not designed to work either on Safari or Chrome.
* Filling out forms: It's a pain filling out web forms with a keyboard. Often need to use the track pad.
iTunes: Never liked this software (crashes, numerous popups, sync failures etc). But this sucks everywhere, on the Mac or on the Windows.
* Pet peeve: While editing email/documents, can't quickly move around a paragraph or a line using the keyboard. The keyboard commands change so much from one app to another that it's so unintuitive. E.g. Command + left moves one word left sometimes but on other occasions goes to the beginning of the line.

Things I don't care about:
* Reboot is fast - but I rarely have to use it.
* Multi touch: I liked the multi-touch gestures but haven't taken a liking to it. I particularly miss page up and page down when browsing (and I am sure there are some secret keys). My index and middle fingers are literally hurting because of over using trackpad.
* Dock: Not being a mouse person, I find no need for the Dock and the folder shortcuts on it (Applications, Downloads etc.)
* Gadgets: These are pretty pointless and not any better or worse than Windows 7. These would be more useful if they updated quickly, but its just faster to go directly to a browser.
* Garage band: Don't have much use for this. 
* Spaces: I don't open many windows at the same time so never feel the need for Spaces.

Final word:
It takes a lot of patience and blind love to switch to the Mac world, especially if you are coming from a heavily Windows world. Given that Windows 7 is quite stable and feature rich and promises to get even better with Windows 8, the reasons to switch are almost vanishing. While it is the absolutely best hardware, I found the software come in the way of getting things done. It negatively affected my productivity. I don't see much reason (other than the sexy hardware and the Steve Job reality distortion field) to switch to Mac. And the reason's are even fewer when you have to spend twice as much on a Mac than a Windows.

While I love my iPad and iPhone, I will have to pass on the Mac next time I am in the market for a laptop.

Nov 11, 2011

Kindle Fire offers Hulu Plus and ESPN apps

Amazon continues to pack more value into Kindle Fire. The most recent announcement is about offering Hulu Plus and ESPN apps.

Previously they announced a lending library to borrow a free book a month from a select list of titles.

I can't wait to get my hands on my Kindle Fire. At $199, it's a steal.

Oct 7, 2011

12 Lessons Steve Jobs Taught Guy Kawasaki

A very succinct and effective talk by Guy Kawasaki about 12 lessons he learned from Steve Jobs during his two stints at Apple.

Here is the list.

1. "Experts" are clueless.
    As an entrepreneur you have to figure things out on your own.

2. Customers cannot tell you what they need.
    They can only give you incremental feedback.

3. Biggest challenges beget the best work.
    Give the most difficult challenges and they will love to tackle them.

4. Design counts.
    It's lot easier to enchant people with great stuff!

5. Big graphics. Big font.
    Make your presentations with less is more.

6. Jump curves, not better sameness.
    Go from ice harvester to ice factory to refrigerators. Not 10% better, 10 times better.

7. "Works" or "doesn't work" is all that matters.
    Industry jargon doesn't matter - "Is it an open or closed system?" doesn't matter.

8. "Value" is different from "price".
   In a 2x2 of Uniqueness vs Value, you have to be on top right.

9. A players hire A players.
    B players hire C players. C players hire D players. D players hire E. This is called bozo explosion.

10. Real CEOs demo.
    If you can't demo your product, quit.

11. Real entrepreneurship.
    Don't ship crap but something that jumps curves.

12. Some things need to be believed to be seen.
    If you wait for customer validation, it will never happen.

Oct 6, 2011

Steve Jobs - RIP

I have never felt pain by the death of someone who I didn't know personally. Today, I feel a strange ache by his demise.

Unlike many in the US, I really came to know about Apple only a decade ago. I was working on a product in 2001 at Citrix, a long time Microsoft partner. Suddenly, there was an increased emphasis to support Mac. And I learned that it was because the Citrix leadership was so sure, that with Jobs at helm, big things are bound to come from Apple. And they did for the next decade!

First came the iPod, then the iPhone, and then the iPad; the cool things we could do with this technology was great. But the most important thing was that it was an amazing emotional experience every time I went through the process of researching, buying and using any of these products. And each time, the love just kept growing!

There are many good leaders. But no one inspires and touches you like him. He knew how to create a cult. He knew how to bring the most out of people. He knew better than anyone else why less is more. He was guided by his inner voice like no one else. He came out of failures in ways no one can even dream of. He knew how to live life, because he understood death so well. He lived, he truly lived!


Sep 25, 2011

Why there is so much left to be desired with digital TV?

I bought Roku recently after comparing it with Apple TV, Boxee and Google TV. I also have some Digital TV apps built in my LG TV. After spending time with these, I have concluded that there's a lot left to be desired in this space. There are a plenty of innovations that need to be happen in this ecosystem and I believe that those are about to happen in the next 5-10 years. After all, TV is the most watched screen among the 4 main screens out there today among PC, tablet, phone, TV.

Here is my review of the various products.

Apple TV: It's content is limited mostly to movies and TV shows. It does not have a browser. Also, it offers only 720p. However, it has great hardware and it also lets you Airplay which is a cool future if you also own an iPad or an iPhone.

Boxee: Very open, lot's of creative ideas but the content is not yet there. You can play any web content on it because it has a flash-capable browser. But sometimes sites disallow playing on Boxee (e.g. Hulu). You can also play it on your laptop or mobile just as easily as the TV box. It also integrates with social networks but none of my friends seem to be there. 

Google TV: It promises a lot of cool features but is unable to deliver overall value mainly because it's light on content and does not have cool hardware. The Logitech Revue box that carried Google TV completely bombed. In fact in their Q1 results, Logitech had negative sales because their returns were greater than their sales. I feel Google TV's problem is that it has too many features and does not strongly deliver on any.

Roku: Roku came out top in my analysis mainly because it is simple to use and seems to have the most amount of content. While the hardware can play 1080p, most of its content is of much lesser quality and often not HD at all. Although it offers a lot of content, once I started using it, I realized it didn't quite feel that way. They have recorded news, TED shows, congressional hearings, Khan Academy videos, some free/useless Bollywood content. The best it gets is live streaming Fox news from 9am-3pm. But unfortunately I don't watch Fox :) In short, there is very little live content and is not mainstream content. The content options are good but it doesn't feel like great TV experience.

After playing with Roku and reviewing the others I feel there's a lot left to be desired for digital TV. Here is my wish list of things that need to happen to offer really awesome digital TV.
* There is a huge need for mainstream and live content. There needs to be the ability to subscribe to live news, talk shows, live sports etc. There also needs to be the ability to get local content (e.g. local news, events).
* Vudu (owned by Walmart) is the best movies app. It offers most number of latest moves for a reasonable price and superior quality (1080p video, 5.1 dolby sound). However, none of these boxes offers Vudu. I have it on my LG TV and I absolutely love it. All other movie/TV apps (Netflix, Amazon, HuluPlus) offer only upto 720p.
* Most of the content is not in HD. With most people buying large flat-screen TVs, its a very poor experience to watch anything less than HD quality.
* 3D content is missing on any of these boxes. I bought a 3D TV but there's almost no 3D content out there. My only option today would be to buy a Blu Ray player and then buy 3D blu ray disks. I don't want to do that :)
* Searching for good content is difficult and requires too much clicking. Also the content is not personalized. Content discovery has a lot of opportunity for improvement. This could be personalized with your viewing habits or your friends viewing habits, Also, the user experience of clicking/typing with a remote control to find content is really painful. While there are some options to search on your phone/tablet, it still needs to become simpler.
* One of the most important problem that needs to be solved are business models. All of them need to work with content owners to figure out intelligent business models that will bring high quality content in both recorded and streaming format. From my experience, I am happy to pay per content (streaming/recorded) if I am interested in it (e.g. I'll buy NBA channels but don't care about NHL). An iTunes like model applied to digital TV is what we need.

I can't wait for the technology developments that will unfold in the digital TV space in the next 5-10 years. This is one area that's waiting to be disrupted.

Jul 13, 2011

How is it to return to India after 10 years?

I recently moved back to the US after spending a little over a year in India. It was great to be back in my own country after 10 long years and experience the growing economy first hand. It gave me an opportunity to separate fact from fiction about all the great things that are happening there. Overall, it was a rewarding experience and I am happy I could do this stint. There might be many out there contemplating a move to India either permanently or for a short period. Let me share some of my experiences about what I liked and disliked.

What I liked:
1. Improved Living Standards: One can live a lot better lifestyle these days. There are several nice apartments in Bangalore and bigger cities where one can find apartments with tons of amenities. This was one of the highlights of my India experience. The place I stayed had it's own swimming pool, sprawling garden, a grocery store, restaurant, salon, sauna, spa, health club, garbage service and many other things all inside the community.

2. Conveniences: Given the boom in various sectors, there were many new conveniences. Numerous grocery stories, tons of shops and malls, all kinds of cars, many new restaurants, lots of flights connecting all parts of the country, more entertainment options and I could go on. These are things I hardly knew of when I grew up in India.

3. Cost of living: While the absolute cost of living for an average Indian may have gone up a lot, I felt that it was a smaller percentage of my income than it was in the US. After spending on all the basics (rent, food, utilities, etc.) I had 10 to 15 percentage points more of my income left than in the US.

4. Startup Opportunities: There are a lot of problems to be solved in any growing economy like India. And then there is the hungry youth to solve it. Either they are tired of their bosses in large IT companies breathing down their neck or there are the smart college kids or the NRI returnees. All of them are trying to tap into the startup world. And as my friend Anand Daniel at Accel put it, 'you don't need a grand idea; if you can execute on simple ideas you can succeed in India'.

5. Family: Being close to family was great. There was a lot of interaction with family & relatives who I would have otherwise never had the opportunity to get to know. I attended lot more weddings than I did in my entire time in the US. However, I would concede that if I had to keep up with all the social commitments for more than a year, I would have started to feel the burden :)

What I disliked:
1. Work culture: Having never really worked in India before, it required a bit of adjustment for me to fit in the Indian way of working, particularly at a big company. There's quite a bit of hierarchy, nepotism and bureaucracy. It was quite a risk averse, close minded culture with a very political and heavy top. The boss is always right and others can keep their brains at home. I did see startups with a positive and open culture but it wasn't always the case.

2. Red Tape: Government offices are still rife with politics and bureaucracy. During my stay I had to put up with the passport offices, license office and few other govt related orgs. In all my experiences, there was still a lot of red tape visible. The success stories of india are not because of the government, it's in spite of the government.

3. Corruption: At the national level there were several scandals I witnessed during my stay. From the telecom scam to the commonwealth games scam. There were plenty. I encountered this even in day-to-day dealings. Some of my suppliers I worked with offered to 'take care of me' and were surprised when I refused to be taken care of.

4. No network: If you are a returnee, you will get a sense of being lonely. Most of the relationships I built in the last 10 years were all based in the US. Most of my college friends had also left India. So my social life was practically restricted to friends at work and some family. However, with time you could rebuild a healthy network but there are some logistical challenges along the way (see next point).

5. Traffic: From a lifestyle stand point, this was the biggest challenge. It not only slows you down to get from one place to another, it encroaches on your quality of life. In California, I could squeeze in several activities in a single day. But in Bangalore, I could just about go to work and back. One respite is that you can hire a chauffeur so you could use the driving time wisely.

All in all, it was a special experience and I made some very good life-long friends. I felt a sense of patriotism to live and work there. For those considering a move, I highly recommend it; just calibrate your expectations based on some of the points above.

Jul 12, 2011

Employers Exploit Broken Visa System

The US employment visa (H1B) and employment based green card system is severely broken. It gives undue advantage and power to employers. And given the insufficient visibility and scrutiny in this system, employers often take advantage of this when dealing with immigrant workers. I have been on a temporary visa now in the US for 12 years and have personally experienced many of the consequences of this power imbalance.

To give some background, the USCIS requires that for most work visas the process be initiated and managed by the employer. Typically, the employer has to prove inability to find American talent and then make a case to hire immigrants. This is applicable for various temporary visas (H1B, L1) and also for permanent visas (employment based green cards). And there is a legal requirement that employers pay immigrants on par with Americans so that an American worker is not disadvantaged when competing for the same job with an immigrant.

Now this system could have worked had the visa processes and timelines were transparent, trackable and consistent. But the quotas on these visas run out so quickly resulting in a huge backlog for many of these visas. Consequently, employers get disproportionate power over their employees.

Here are some specific ways in which it screws employees who are at the mercy of their employer to file their visas and green cards.

* Negotiation tactic: HR often uses the argument of immigration paper work as a negotiation tactic. "We can only offer you this because we also have to bear the costs of your visa". Now this argument is illegal and can get companies into severe trouble. But.. it still happens all the time. Consequently immigrants often end up with a poorer compensation or job grade during negotiations. Further, it also hurts American employees as employers find it attractive to hire immigrant workers for cheaper.

* Arbitrary rules: Employers start setting arbitrary rules requiring immigrant employees to wait for 6 months or 12 months before applying for the green card. This is great for the employer because no matter what happens the immigrant is likely to stick around waiting out for their green card to get started.

* Unfair promotions and pay raises: Now that the immigrant employee is locked-in there is not much incentive for the employer to promote them or adjust their pay according to their contribution. I have personally witnessed this on various occasions. It doesn't seem there's a law protecting the immigrant employee on this. And even if there is a law, given there's no objective way to track this, it's quite easy for an employer to manipulate by saying 'they are only performing at a lower level'.

* Conservative approach: HR often forgets that they have a dual role. While they are supposed to protect the company, they forget to be an ally for the employee. As a result, they end up taking the most conservative approach when filing for any visa just because there's a 0.001% chance that the company might get into trouble. This results in further delays for employees.

* Severe layoff impact - scenario 1: And let's say the employer is going through tough times, nothing stops them from laying off immigrants. The problems for immigrants are now lot more complicated. Simply put, they have to leave the country. The visa rules are very fuzzy about the legal duration one can stay in the country after being laid off. So they are left with little or no time to find another job. And don't forget that the new employer has to agree to file for their visa again!

* Severe layoff impact - scenario 2: Even if the immigrant does not lose his/her job, layoffs can impact visa processing quite seriously. Generally, employers will often stop any visa paper work. The argument is that if we are laying off, it's risky to file for a visa or a green card. The missing point is that the person laid off can not potentially fill this job for technical and practical reasons. Could you tell an immigrant employee 'Hey Joe (American) is getting laid off, but you are an immigrant so stop doing what you are doing and let Joe take over'?

* Affects employee motivation: As a result of the above lock-ins, employees are sometimes stuck in jobs they don't enjoy. They end up with low motivation levels, hate their job and their bosses. This impacts productivity and surprisingly employers don't seem to notice. And honestly, bosses hate to deal with employee's immigration stuff, it's quite unrewarding.

* Improper treatment: Finally, employers often make us literally beg for any immigration paper work even if it's a completely required activity (e.g. H1B refiling, green card filing). Employees tend to be very careful not pissing off HR fearing that they can play hard ball when the time comes to renew visas or file the green card. This is quite demeaning and my self-respect has been hurt on more than a few occasions by having to put up with some bureaucratic BS.

Overall this is a very unfair system for the immigrant employee. Employers have disproportionate power and they end up screwing up immigrants all the time. The more effective system would be a point-based system that is in place in the UK, Canada, Australia and some other countries. Employees are qualified based on the number of points they can accumulate either because of their advanced degree or years of experience or their specialty. This system is a lot more objective and evens out the power imbalance between the employer and the employee.

I have personally been impacted by this and am still waiting in the green card queue even after 12 years in this country! And to put it mildly, it's extremely frustrating.

Dec 27, 2010

Digital Incentives in India

Lately I have seen a lot of deal activity in the digital incentives space in India ranging from group buying and flash sales to TV group deals and comparison shopping. While it's quite exciting to see all this excitement it's clearly a sign of riding the hype. In the case of group buying a lot of investors are riding the Groupon hype that's been in the buzz for the last few months with Google trying to acquire it for a huge valuation. The deal never happened and Groupon chose wisely to move on independently. Now setting aside all the unnecessary hype, I do feel that there is a significant opportunity for digital incentives in India.

The key driver is the rapid growth of the retail sector in India in the last few years. It seems that it will continue to grow at 11.4% annually to reach $543B by 2014. Further, access to credit/debit cards is also driving ecommerce at a healthy pace. Digital incentives, both for ecommerce and brick and mortar products and services, are also influenced by these macro trends. This will be the inflection point for small businesses to start advertising on digital media (both online and mobile).

There are 3 main areas within this space that have shown a lot of activity. First, group buying or daily deal sites like Deals For You, SnapDeal and Taggle which rely on the group phenomenon and virality as a key mechanism to drive awareness. All of them have had some kind of investment infusion in the last 12 months. Most of these sites focus on driving awareness for local lifestyle businesses from restaurants and spas to travel getaways. Then there are flash sales sites like Fashion And You, 99 Labels and These focus on driving sales of branded exclusive products by limiting membership based on user demographics. I particularly like's model because it focuses on selling Indian fashion goods to people living abroad. Fashion and You raised money from Sequoia India and raised from Accel & Helion. Finally, there are odds and ends like Cellcast (group buying on TV), Naaptol (shopping comparison) and Flipkart & InfiBeam (plain ecommerce sites).

There are two main areas of opportunity. First, no one offers a thoroughly mobile experience and whoever does this best will likely lead the pack. One of the key limitations to ecommerce's rapid has been poor Internet access in the country. Mobile is the key medium through which you can reach a very broad audience. Second, it has to tie in virality and social concepts into incentives. The premise of group buying is to drive the power of 'word of mouth'. These incentives have to leverage social networks in India effectively to achieve broad success.

Clearly, there are too many players in the market and some will disappear. Also, discount margins will come down from the insance 80-90% you see at the moment. But the digital incentives phenomena will have a significant impact on making digital commerce main stream in India.


Dec 24, 2010

GetJar - Net Positive

Our team has been using GetJar for the last few months to host our Java based mobile app called Nokia Communties. It is claimed to be the 2nd largest app store after Apple's AppStore and it does an above average job of reaching potential downloaders. However, it has quite a few rough edges and there is definitely scope for improving app stores.

The main things I liked about the service are:
1. It's quite straightforward to setup and host your app
2. Provides decent options to target your audience (primarily by geography and device)
3. Quite a bit of stats to breakdown by geography and device
4. Ability to create & run promotions
5. It allows app hosting which makes it easy to share it across desktop and mobile sites

However, I feel there are a bunch of things it needs to do better. Firstly, the stats seem quite inflated. In our case it shows 3 times the downloads compared with registrations on our database. Secondly, the stats provided don't provide reliable information on success/failures of installations. Finally, customer sales & support are running a thin staff and aren't equipped to address issues relating to impressions and conversions.

The reason we are continuing promotions are because it's quite affordable. They charge by CPD (Cost Per Download) which is quite unique. Also, it works for us because our app is free. If you want to charge for your app then it doesn't support it just yet.

I would still highly recommend it to developers as this is one of the few cross platform stores which makes your job easier as a developer.

Dec 16, 2010

Notes on Audacity of Hope

A couple of weeks ago I read Audacity of Hope. Reading it after Obama's election as president was somewhat strange. I viewed his promises and ideas more critically and as its evident now, he has not been able to live upto many of these. It felt like that all that idealism that drew people and promised hope for many was just that - unachievable ideals. It is so hard to implement many of those ideas and plans. Nevertheless, it was an enriching and insightful read because of his thorough understanding of various issues and mainly because of his authentic style.

On TV, to appeal to a broad audience, he resorts to simple language. But here in the book he takes it up a notch and uses his best rhetoric. He has thought through many different issues and aspects of the American life and it clearly shows. From the various policy matters to matters of religion, race, family and values. I have new found appreciation for his intelligence, knowledge and self-awareness.

The book, as intended, does an excellent job of covering all the essential elements to create a formidable platform for his presidential elections. What is remarkable is that he could craft a book while serving as a full time US senator! The timing of launch, the authenticity of thoughts and the fresh approach to politics clearly help set the tone for his successful election.

He does a good job of drawing common ground among a people of diverse ethnicities, religion, nationality and political affiliation. He definitely views America's role very differently than most other American presidents. He treads a good balance between being an isolationist and unwanted involvement in matters of other nations. He takes a centrist approach much as he does on many other issues.

In the end, words are only worth so much. Post election Obama has struggled to pass any significant bill with bi-partisan support. The democratic system in the US has become highly polarized and is coming in the way of progress that it badly needs to address the various domestic issues from jobs & healthcare to energy & education.

Great read if you want to learn more about the man and his intellectual prowess. It also gives a great view of the state of politics and the various issues being faced by today's America.