Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What's one thing you wish you had learned in school?

Takeaways from What's one thing you wish you had learned in school?, in no particular order:
  1. To think critically and independently, Philosophy.
  2. Lateral Thinking
  3. Practical experience in solving real life problems
  4. Sex Ed - biological, social, moral aspects of sexuality; McCary's book, alternate sexuality.
  5. The power of Symbol, to open the heart to wonder, compassion, and contemplation
  6. Outdoor and Survival Skills
  7. Human relations for everyday living,
  8. To deal with one’s negative feelings - fear, envy and loneliness etc.
  9. Emotional intelligence and people skills
  10. Communication
  11. Office Politics
  12. Personal finance, Accounting
  13. How to have difficult conversations. Productive conflict management.
  14. Assertiveness
  15. Influence & persuasion - Caldini
  16. The attitude for learning, attitude towards failure - value of failure, learning thru failure.
  17. Emotional robustness, resilience & coping skills , learning to fail
  18. How different disciplines are intertwined and interconnected
  19. How to cook
  20. How to evaluate research
  21. Dance, drama, music, arts
  22. Speed reading
  23. Lucid dreaming
  24. How to apply and go through university
  25. Understanding careers
  26. Sports, games, and sportsmanship
  27. Health, Fitness
  28. How to network properly
  29. Languages - Arabic, Spanish, whatever.
  30. Active listening
  31. Public speaking
  32. Respect
  33. Relaxing
  34. A truer account of history - teach the script not the cast
  35. Nonverbal and paraverbal communication
  36. Exchange program, travel, broaden perspectives.
  37. Learning to learn – effortful study.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Book Summary: Enchantment

Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions is the latest book form marketing guru Guy Kawasaki. The book is dedicated to his family and opens with a quote from J.S. Bryan – ‘Many men can make a fortune but few can build a family.’ Enchantment enough to get me to read the book cover to cover in one go. And I’ll highly recommend it to anyone who wants a simple readable guide to better interpersonal relationships.

My favorite part of the book is chapter 11 – ‘How to Enchant Your Boss’ – something I’m sure many of us will find interesting. Your boss has a huge impact on your work life so it’s super important to get this relationship right. Guy’s boss enchantment how-to is about as pragmatic and direct as it can get:

1. Do whatever it takes to make your boss look good. Just make sure it’s legal and moral. Everything else is secondary. We all like people who make us look good.

2. When your boss asks you to do something, drop everything else and do it immediately. I think it’s sort of like with user interface design – responsiveness is the key to being perceived as efficient & effective.

3. Underpromise, Overdeliver. This was the first piece of career advice I ever got, back when I was an intern at Motorola.

4. Prototype. Creating a quick prototype and asking for feedback ensures that you actually deliver what your boss wanted. And it makes you look proactive.

5. Show and broadcast progress. Make sure your boss and everybody else knows what you are doing. This one is particularly hard for the less extrovert amongst us and it does take some effort to cross that psycological self-promotion hurdle. And of course, don’t antagonize others by overdoing it.

6. Make friends. Friendship has network effects. The more you have the more you get. It makes you more efficient because your friends will be happy to help you. It makes you look good. It makes your boss look good.

7. Ask for mentoring. Mentors and sponsors are not optional. If your boss can also be your mentor that would be great. Asking for mentorship shows you have ambition and that you respect the person you’re asking.

8. Deliver bad news early. But don’t stop there. Come up with ideas to fix the problem or mitigate the risk. Makes you look proactive and capable.

The way I see it, it’s like you are an entrepreneur marketing yourself and your boss is your customer. Aim for customer delight. Enchantment.

PS: If anyone knows who J. S. Bryan is, pls let me know. Google didn’t turn up much.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Click-n-Drag comics and the Art of Saying No

Ever considered using comic strips to express your thoughts? That would be great, wouldn’t it? If only it wasn’t so hard. Well, it’s not hard anymore. Guess what, there’s this website called that lets you create comic strips by dragging characters and props on to a canvass, sort of like a WYSIWYG designer for comics. Cool, isn’t it! For those of us who are artistically challenged, Pixton is like getting a pair of wings. (Forgive the Red Bull analogy. I’m too lazy to think of anything better now.) It feels amazingly empowering to be able to so easily do something that, until now, was beyond ones reach.

When I first heard about Pixton from some of my friends, I was a bit skeptical. You know, if it sounds too good to be true, and all that. But none the less, it seemed so neat an idea that I had to give it a try. I did. And then I became a fan. Here’s one of my first creations. This comic strip is inspired by something I heard over dinner some time back and based on a true story. Of course, I’ve taken some artistic liberties, couldn’t help it.

Beyond just the fun factor, I think Pixton has the potential to be a great business. One can imagine all sorts of uses – from designing posters to posting an interesting status update on Facebook. It’s amazingly easy to learn to use and so much fun that it’s not hard to imagine Pixton going viral. Wonder why it hasn’t already? Perhaps it might help if Facebook integration was more seamless. And once people get hooked to it, they’ll want to use it at work, say to storyboard a user experience scenario for a product design. And that’s how Pixton makes money, by charging for the commercial version.

Give it a try at and find some interesting ways to say some interesting things. Post comic strips to Facebook. Take a printout and stick it at your desk. Make a witty greeting card. Make a point. Whatever.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Book Summary: Tearing Down The Myths of Innovation

Since childhood, we’ve been force fed with false propaganda about creativity and innovation – Edison and his light bulb, Newton and the apple that fell on his head, Archimedes running naked through the streets of ancient Greece shouting Eureka. Now, imagine Pink Floyd playing in the background as Scott Berkun takes a sledgehammer at all that nonsense, starting with the myth of epiphany – the idea that innovation happens out of the blue if you just sit under an apple tree. That’s what The Myths of Innovation is all about.

The best part of the book, however, starts with the epilogue which ends with a brief description of the ‘simple plan’ for innovation – stop thinking/dreaming/reading and start doing something, focus on solving the problem instead of trying to innovate for its own sake, build trust and be willing to stick your neck out for the team, keep the team small, celebrate interesting mistakes and keep going. And then there are the ‘creative thinking hacks’ starting with the mantra that ‘an idea is a combination of other ideas’ and the need to loose inhibitions, find the right environment and stay committed. This is followed up with a crash course on how to pitch your idea. And finally a list of things to help you stay motivated – anger, desperation, pride, death, fun or a crazy friend.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

Feels like God

You know that feeling you get when you get a phone call from a close friend or relative that you haven’t talked to in a long time and they call to ask you for a favor. Sure you care about this person. You would gladly do the favor and more. But you just wish at the back of your mind that they would call up more often. Like when they don’t have a favor to ask. Just to check on how you are doing. Just because they thought about you and felt like taking. Just to let you know that they care.

And then you realize how often you have done the same thing. How often you don’t have the time or energy for your friends and family. Just to check on how they are doing. Just because you thought about them and felt like taking. Just to let them know that you care.

And then you realize that's what it must feel like to be God, to be Almighty and yet thirst.

Well, profound isn't it, the thoughts that a telephone can evoke. God certainly has a sense of humor!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Intimidating Awesomeness

A few days back in the office, at about 9pm, the conversation goes something like this:

A: Hey, try to solve this. My friend was asked this in an interview. You have a stream of words coming in. How will you check, in constant time, if you have already received a particular word or an anagram of it?

Now, if you are wondering what’s with the title of this post, I suggest you stop here and try to solve this problem before reading further.

(Don’t look below.)

B: Hmm. (pause) Well. You could maintain a hash table. Hmm. So that reduces your question to what the hash function should be.
C: We could assign a numeric value to each character and add it up.
D: Yeah, but we’ll get a collision when letters repeat in a word.
C: (pause) Wait a minute. Why only add? Why not some other operation?
B: Like Multiply?
D: Prime numbers.
C: Yep, map each letter to one of the first 26 prime numbers and multiply them.
D: That should always give a unique number.
A: Correct answer!
E: (walks by) Dinner?

All in under a few minutes.

If this were a real tech interview, a successful candidate for a high-end product development job would be expected to solve (or come reasonably close to solving) this in around 20 minutes. Ok, granted we ganged up on the poor problem. But I can’t give you a real work example here, so this is all we have. And, more importantly, that fact that we ganged up on the problem does not explain everything. Yes, the folks I work with are smart, some of the best that money can hire. But then, from experience, I know that most other groups of equally smart people can not pull off something like this. I’d say that what you just saw there was more than the sum of our individual abilities.

Collective Intelligence, the measure of a small group’s problem solving ability, depends on more than the intellectual abilities of individual members. A recent study by Woolley et al. published in Science and appropriately titled “Evidence for a Collective Intelligence Factor in the Performance of Human Groups” shows there is such a thing as a measurable collective intelligence. That it is not strongly correlated with the average or maximum individual intelligence of group members or the traditional soft factors like group cohesion, motivation, and satisfaction. And that it is correlated with the average social sensitivity of group members, the equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking, and the proportion of females in the group.

Social sensitivity was measured using the ‘reading the mind in the eyes’ test, where you are shown photos of the eye region and asked to choose which of two given words best describes what the person in the photo is thinking or feeling. It essentially tests your ability tune in to the other person’s mental state in order to understand or predict their behavior. What is otherwise called empathy, ‘social intelligence’ or ‘theory of mind’. Needless to say, groups of people with higher sores on this test did better when working as a team.

The proportion of females in the group was another factor. While Woolley et al. suggest that this could simply be because women in general score better on the social sensitivity scale; I’ll make a wild assed guess (WAG) and speculate that it has something to do with our neurobiological response to the opposite sex – something perhaps to do with oxytocin in the brain – that causes a gender diverse group to be more socially sensitive.

And not surprisingly, groups where a few people dominated the conversation were less collectively intelligent than those with a more equal distribution of conversational turn-taking. If you look at our sample above, the conversational turn-taking is striking with folks completing each other’s sentences towards the end. Sort of like what Hasson et al. describe as neural coupling, where communication is a single act resulting from brain wave synchronization across participants.

A smart team that scores high on social sensitivity will beat a team of individualistic superstars hands down any day. So, what can you do if your team is not exactly overflowing with social sensitivity? Fortunately, there are workarounds, like the improv technique for brainstorming that Scott Berkun describes in his classic project management reference Making Things Happen. Based on the principles of improvisational theater, this technique forces equality in distribution of conversational turn-taking in a constructive way and thus compensates for lack of natural social sensitivity. In fact, I’ll take another WAG and say that practicing improv could possibly improve social sensitivity skills.