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Posted on: Friday, October 15, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Understanding Genuine Geeks And Nerds - Part 3.

Small Talk For Geeks

"Am I in the call?" - that is the question someone I knew first asked when he dialed into a conference call with a client of ours. This guy was a geek and like most geeks he lacked the fundamentals of starting a discussion that revolved around small talk.

"Ok, Is there anything else we want to discuss or should we end the call?" - was a question I saw another geek ask smack in the middle of a conference call where folks were discussing the weather in and around California.

Awkward moments.

Sounds of chirping.

Most geeks around the world are notoriously famous for not going with the flow when it comes to discussions leading to an impression that geeks don't give a shit about anything other than programming or code.

The geek on the the other hand is not evil. He expects that sooner or later, as a few awkward minutes pass by, the discussion will steer towards code, design or what he does. That is when he expects to jump in and connect.

This of course, invariably never happens. After you have blurted a few awkward remarks and have created a few silent moments in your first few meetings you have invariably drawn a wall that will keep your clients, your managers or the suits away from you. This is not personal. They just think you are an arrogant pompous jerk.

You made yourself look like a freak.

The beauty of being a geek however, is that you are blessed with a strange way of looking at things from a systemic problem solving perspective. Think of small talk as a problem you need to solve. Don't try to fumble with the problem as a standard human being who sucks at small talk. Do it as a full time geek dissecting the problem with the intent of debugging it. Typically, solving this problem involves three fundamental steps.

First is content. The second is practice. The third is application of that practice.

Content is usually the easiest to part to figure out. This is where what you already know comes into play. Follow the right guys on Twitter and glance through just a dozen tweets a day. Subscribe to a few RSS channels. You have enough information to start discussion on the typical hot news small talk topics.

The second is practice. This is where it gets interesting. This is what close acquaintances are for. This is where daily meetings and status calls become good. These are your own managers. People you know. People you can fail in front of. People you are comfortable with. Of course you don't have to tell them you are using them to practice small talk. 

I'd say it takes anything between a hundred to three hundred hours of discussion before you will suddenly realize that you can talk for hours about things you know nothing about. This is when you will be able to steer the discussion flawlessly and let the other person speak, by just adding "oh really?", "that's interesting", "I did not know that".

You are not just making the other person comfortable but you are doing something which is very important in the system of conversation.

You are now gathering content from discussions.

The same content that will be thrown at your clients and others when you move to the application phase of training.

The application of this practice is rather interesting. If you have spent some basic time and effort in gathering content and have a couple of hundred hours of practice behind you, small talk should no longer sound like small talk. It should seem and feel like a discussion. The geek within you still knows you are wasting your time with quite a few of these discussions, but he has learnt how to hack it. He knows how to hate it without making it evident that you actually hate it.

Chances are that by now you have actually started liking some parts of it. Chances are that you are now explaining parts of the system to your managers and your clients in simple, precise, direct terms that help them understand things. What is interesting is that they are listening to you now. Chances are that they see you as a smart individual with innovative ideas and not the freak who gets on a call and asks when it is going to end.

Then when you suddenly learn something new from these discussions and realize that your clients and managers are just as smart as you are, only in a different way, you have taken your first step at bridging the gap between clients, management and those pesky developers.


Now the only thing you need to be careful of is that you don't get carried away with it and that you do not overdo it.

posted on Friday, October 15, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Sunday, October 10, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Programmer Tip: When In Doubt About A Company Take A Tour Of Their Office.

One of the things that I absolutely like doing every time I am at an organization, even if I am just visiting it, is getting a guided tour of the organization.

I have talked about my guided tour of Infosys, getting a bad vibe from it and then the bad vibe getting confirmed by a software programmer who joined and quit the organization within three weeks in my earlier post.

A simple tour or sometimes even a blog post or a video of the office tour says a lot about the culture of the organization. There are a lot of these posts and videos out there. Consider for example:

  1. The Fog Creek Office Tour Video on Channel 9.
  2. A simple blog post by Jeff Atwood which describes a typical office at Vertigo Software.
  3. A video tour of 37Signals and Google

The videos will clearly not tell you everything about the organization but there are general indications that are fairly easy to extract out of these videos.

Watch these videos closely enough, read the posts in detail. Chances are that you will be able to draw your own conclusions and facts about these organizations, not just what the tour guide is trying to show you. That is what a quick five minute office tour video can do. An in person office tour says much more.

Malcolm Gladwell explains this approach of extracting information from the environment where people work or live rather articulately in his book, Blink.

He explains:

Imagine that you are considering me for a job. You’ve seen my résumé and think I have the necessary credentials. But you want to know whether I am the right fit for your organization. Am I a hard worker? Am I honest? Am I open to new ideas? In order to answer those questions about my personality, your boss gives you two options. The first is to meet with me twice a week for a year - to have lunch or dinner or go to a movie with me - to the point where you become one of my closest friends. (Your boss is quite demanding.) The second option is to drop by my house when I’m not there and spend half an hour or so looking around. Which would you choose?

The seemingly obvious answer is that you should take the first option: the thick slice. The more time you spend with me and the more information you gather, the better off you are. Right? I hope by now that you are at least a little bit skeptical of that approach. Sure enough, as the psychologist Samuel Gosling has shown, judging people’s personalities is a really good example of how surprisingly effective thin-slicing can be.

Malcolm shows compelling research that sometimes observing the mere environment in which a person functions or lives tells much more about the person than spending time with the individual in person. He explains:

On balance, then, the strangers ended up doing a much better job. What this suggests is that it is quite possible for people who have never met us and who have spent only twenty minutes thinking about us to come to a better understanding of who we are than people who have known us for years.

Forget the endless “getting to know” meetings and lunches, then. If you want to get a good idea of whether I’d make a good employee, drop by my house one day and take a look around.

Peeking into the bed rooms of people you are about to hire might not be very practical advice, but if you are a developer who cares about joining the right organization, one thing you should definitely consider doing is asking your interviewer to take you for a quick office tour before you accept the offer.

Oh and yes, while you are on the tour, pay little attention to what the tour guide is showing you. Keep in mind the cultural questions that are important to you and watch closely for signals you can pick up to answer those questions.

Is the work environment generally quite?

Do the people seem happy?

How much innovation and thought process has gone in building the office?

How much of the budget has really gone in getting the important stuff like developer offices, laptops and rooms where people work right compared to the fluff?

The answers are out there and sometimes a simple office tour will give you enough information to make the right decision on whether you should accept an offer or continue looking. If you are planning on joining an organization, go on, take a tour of the workplace before you accept an offer.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Sunday, October 10, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Saturday, October 9, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Feature Tip: When You Are Skipping Features Choose Wisely.

Earlier when I announced my thousandtyone youtube channel I provided a link to a page that would allow the readers of this blog and the subscribers of the channel to add topics on which they want me to do videos and vote topics up or down.

The Web based system that I had used for this was Slinkset.

But then, within a couple of weeks my ADHD kicked in and I forgot the password that I had signed up with.

That should be a simple problem, right?

Having thought that, I set out to look for a forgot password link, only to find out that there was no forgot password link on the Slinkset login page. Slinkset does not seem to believe that their users will forget their passwords.

Instantly I set out to look for a support email or a contact us page on their website, only to realize that they had none.

Slinkset is an useful idea rather well implemented, but there are two major problems that I see with it.

One is the fact that the company does not seem to have a face or a personality behind it. No information on their whereabouts, no contact information, no support links and no support emails from their home page. The second is lack of basic user functionality like forgot password.

When we talk about YAGNI, Less is right and Under doing your competition by building less what becomes profoundly important is that we look at every feature we choose to skip as closely as the features we choose to build.

Skipping features is fine. Letting your customers remind you that features are important is fine too, but if you are a young and budding startup with only a handful of customers, it is also wise to see to it that you build the basic set of features and an application where you customers can function without hitting roadblocks all the time and then at-least provide them a means to reach out to you and provide you their feedback if they are stuck.

On a side note, apparently after quite a bit of Googling it turns out that Slinkset does have a help system where you can ask for help and the password reset issue is mentioned there. You can reset your password here. Makes you wonder why Slinkset chooses to make life difficult for their users when opening up their reset password functionality and making it discoverable is as easy as providing this link somewhere on their login page.

Also makes you wonder why their help is not linked from their home page.

Go figure.

Either ways, when all you are building is an application which is one page with one niche functionality, the packing, help, support, usability and discoverability make all the difference between an awesome product that you stick to or a product that you try just once.

For now, I like Slinkset and I am going to allow them to be crappy when it comes to discoverability and continue using them. I think you should too. Go try them out and see if you like them too.

posted on Saturday, October 9, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Friday, October 8, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Understanding Genuine Geeks And Nerds - Part 2.

Knowing The Geek Within And Learning How His (or Her) Mind Learns.

As a geek who has ADHD I am intrigued by the idea of observing the learning process rather closely and hacking the heck out of it.

As someone who had major trouble focusing on a book end to end I realized that my attention span shoots up when I am listening to audio books. This might seem like a tiny little realization to some of you guys out there but for the geek within me this was huge. It was a discovery of a hack that allowed me to break inherent limitations of my mind and push beyond them that intrigued me the most.

This meant that I could grab an audio book out there and be done with it in just a few days.

Heck! I could even turn a text document or a PDF into an audio book.

The same approach even made proof reading for this blog much more easier.

As someone who had strong feelings his entire school life, particularly classrooms or lousy teachers sounding like experts and as someone who recently quit his French classes half way through, classrooms are also one of those approaches to learning that often do not tend to work well for most geeks and yet they exist. A concept Khan Academy has managed to hack the heck out of.

Are you really learning when you attend a training session?

Are you really asking a question based out of genuine curiosity or are you just trying to impress the trainer or other participants?

Do endless arguments on Forums and Blog Post teach you something or are you just better off marking a thread #EOYBD and resisting the temptation to respond once it reaches a point where you realize you have not much to learn out of it?

Are you learning the most when you are talking or are you learning the most in your quite time when you are in a disconnected mode?

Are you learning better with the technical books out there or does more information and spice mixed with technical content helps you understand and recall information faster?

I don't have all the answers here.

What matters however is, are you giving enough time, attention and effort to learning how you learn best?

If not, why not start now?

Chances are that the geek within you that spends hours tuning that database might love tuning the heck out of your mind and figuring out new approaches to learning that might help you move beyond your inherent limitations.

Each mind is different and you will need to figure out what stimulates, excites, motivates, captivates and keeps your mind hooked. Start by understanding the basic rules, learning some basic hacks and then overtime figure out your own hacks, tweaks or workarounds to enhance your learning process and add fun to it.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Friday, October 8, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Monday, October 4, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Straight From The Forefronts Of A Standard Consulting And Outsourcing Body Shop.

An acquaintance who recently moved from a small but innovative software development firm over to Infosys tells the story of how the organization runs. He starts the discussion by talking about the plush green and well maintained campus of Infosys.

Something even I have talked about before.

Then he moves to the overall process and some of the facts that emerge during the discussions are chilling to their core. Here are some highlights of the discussion to give you a quick idea of the process that powers Infosys.

Nine hour workdays

Infosys demands that every employee spend at-least nine hours a day in the company campus. The electronic cards record your in time and out time every time you swipe them. This person forgets swiping out his card on a day and gets an email from his project manager letting him know that this behavior is unacceptable and that he needs to pay special attention to these details moving forward.

Talk about working less.

Ties Two Day A Week

Infosys demands that all their employees wear ties in the office complex two days a week. They take this rule rather seriously. So much so that the security guards at the main gate have been instructed not to let anyone in without a tie on the specified days.

Talk about wearing what makes you comfortable.

Compulsory Internal Exams

Infosys demands that employees clear at-least two internal functional exams with a minimum of sixty percent marks. Your failing to do that prevents you from getting a promotion after three years. Promotions cannot be obtained just by giving kickass performance at your project.

Passing the exams is critical. If you do not study for these exams like young college going students and do not clear them your chances of climbing to the next level after three years of service are slim.

These exams are not Microsoft or Oracle vendor certifications and are internal Infosys exams which have no meaning outside of Infosys.

Monitoring Your CPU utilization

Infosys is working on a new system which will monitor CPU utilization of every developer to see how actively they are using their machines. Something that they believe will be a better indicator of if the developers are really working. Just spending time in the office premises apparently, is not enough. They need you to be slamming those keys at the keyboard and utilizing that CPU firing builds.

Internet Access Depends on Your Level

Internet access depends on your job designation and level. Level 300 and below for example are not given internet access around the clock. They just get internet for a couple of hours a day. Senior levels still have personal email sites like gmail blocked. If you are an engineer who is working at or under level 300 and are heavily dependent on Google for your work, you are basically screwed.

Selection Criteria And Client Interviews

Infosys still spends heavy amount of importance on school and college marks even while recruiting candidates with over five years of work experience. They also conduct regular client interviews where their engineers are expected to answer questions that their overseas clients ask them over telephonic interviews.

A huge number of Infosys engineers (in the case of this acquaintance this number was eight out of every ten) fail these interviews miserably because there is a huge disconnect between how much they scored in college versus what their clients expect them to know.

Not to mention of course that over the course of time these candidates figure out means to clear these interviews by collecting questions from folks who were interviewed before them and maintaining their own question banks.

Angry Employees

Even though this was not directly mentioned by the acquaintance after this discussion I set out to find the truth about the level of employee satisfaction and apparently stumbled upon countless examples of the employees venting out their frustrations and anger openly in the comments section of wall street journal blog and the Times of India blog.

All of these articles and the passion with which the comments were posted seemed to suggest that Infosys was not keeping the best of their employees happy either.

Automatons And The Programmers Bill Of Rights

Of course the point of this post is not to thrash Infosys per say. It is by far one of the best consulting body shops India has to offer. Having said that, the state of affair of most software consulting shops in India and around the world is tragic.

Maybe it becomes so hard to find programmers who cannot program because most huge organizations around the world aren't looking for programmers. They are looking for and breeding automatons who punch their time cards, wear ties to office thrice every week, clear three exams every year, learn up answers for client interviews and score high in their high school and college.

If you are a young and budding entrepreneur, Infosys and the similar breed of companies provide a perfect template of practices which you should put down in your "not to do" list.

As you grow your organization, do you also give in to the temptation of hiring and herding flock of sheep who obey your rules or do you have the courage for remaining small in spirit even when your organizational size grows slowly and steadily? If you are reading this and run an organization, remember this, you cannot "Out-Infosys" at being Infosys, setting rules and hiring automatons. If that is all you do chances are that an Infosys somewhere will outbid your business.

What you can do is be small, cater to a niche and hire smart human beings who have talent, individuality, their own opinions and the spine to say no when asked to wear a tie five days a week. Hire the best that you can get. Hire like the life of your organization depends on it. Once you have done that, try sticking to and honoring the programmers bill of rights instead.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Monday, October 4, 2010 12:14:36 AM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [4]
Posted on: Saturday, October 2, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

You Do Not Need Sexy Voices And People With Weird Smiles On Your Website.

There is nothing that pisses your technically savvy and intelligent customers off more than pictures of random men and women in suits grinning away to glory on corporate websites of enterprises around the world.

Stock Photos by their very nature indicate that there is something seriously f@#kuped up within the corridors of your organization.

The sexiest of voices hired to do voice overlays on product videos tell your customers that either the product is built by a bunch of engineers who did not care enough to make a product video themselves or the product is so weak that it needs a sex appeal of a cute voice to cover up its flaws.

Are you hiring smart builders who are also doubling up as wordsmiths?

Are you hiring smart story tellers who can weave such a compelling story that people get gripped and watch the video even if the background does not contain a cute female voice?

Are you building a culture that is so strong that random photographs taken on any given day can be things you can put up on your website?

You do not need stock pictures, sexy voices, men in suits with cheesy smiles or even a corporate look on your corporate website.

Make a remarkable product.

Be Yourself.

Its a lesson all of us learn multiple times in multiple walks of life.

This time, remember it and start living it. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Now go rebrand your website to reflect your true personal or organizational character.

I dare you.

posted on Saturday, October 2, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]
Posted on: Friday, October 1, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Product Tip: Avoiding The "Call Us For Pricing Details" Model On Your Corporate Website.

The Microsoft SQL Server 2005 pricing model is transparent, online and in your face for you to decide if the product fits your pockets.

MySQL on the other hand seems like a "call us to find the price" operation when you first Google for its pricing.

The kind I prefer referring to as the Mafia Ransom Pricing Model.

Even though MySQL is in reality not a "call us for pricing" operation I cringe every time I see marketing guys show their famous "call us for pricing" move.

Pricing is hard. Pricing takes a lot of experimenting. You can never price your product to please everyone.

But that does not mean that you run away from the problem all together, hoping that your potential customers will call you every time they want to know the price of your product and then they will spend countless hours haggling with you.

The "call us for pricing" approach tells your customers that you have no clue about what your product should be priced at.  It also tells the customers that you are going to charge each customer differently not on the value your product provides but on how much the customer is willing to pay or a host of bizarre factors.

Consider this line on MySQL pricing page for instance:

With MySQL Enterprise Unlimited, companies with up to 1000 employees can deploy an unlimited number of MySQL Enterprise Servers, with full 24x7 production support for a fixed price of $40,000. You also get unlimited 24x7 access to MySQL Enterprise Monitor.

It does not take a rocket scientist to catch a bad vibe about the pricing model if you are somewhere in the nine hundred employee ball park and are looking to hire more people. What happens when you cross a thousand employees? You call up folks at MySQL and haggle with them?

Ever wondered what the correlation is between which database your project uses and how many employees your organization has? None.

To understand this concept of "no correlation" between what you charge for your product and what the pricing depends on, lets start by assuming that we had an awesome word processor that you were interested in buying. We started off with the "call us for pricing" tagline on our website. Now lets assume that out of the hundred customers that saw the website and the ninety seven who never came back, you fall in the range of three customers who did.

Let's also assume that you actually picked up the phone and decided to give us a call. On the call, we told you, that what we charge you for the product is going to depend on what kind of documents you choose to write with our word processor.

If you write a blog post that no-one reads, we would give you the word processor for fifteen dollars a license but if you were to do the sales deed of your home on it, the price of the word processor would shoot up to five percent of the deed price.

Picking important factors which have strong concrete correlation to how you price your product is also important. Pricing a database license based on the number of users or processers is perfectly fine but pricing it on the number of employees in my organization is as messed up as pricing a word processor based on what I plan to do with it.

MySQL does seem to have a well defined pricing page too and this post by no means is an attempt to thrash MySQL. The point of this post however is to convey the central idea which is this:

Every time I see a product website with well defined versions and price tags attached to these versions, I make a decision based on if it fits my pockets and needs. Every time I see a "call us for pricing" tag on the pricing page of a product, I cringe. I almost never call. But then again, maybe that is just because I am a geek. Pricing is a hard problem but that does not mean you avoid it. Putting a "call us for pricing" callout on your website is not an answer.

Now go figure out your product plans, prices and publish them on your product website.

I wish you good luck.

posted on Friday, October 1, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [0]
Posted on: Sunday, September 26, 2010 by Rajiv Popat

Understanding Genuine Geeks And Nerds - Part 1.

Of the first few times I recall being addressed to as a geek or a nerd, one was during my high-school days. It was meant to be a slightly derogatory remark passed in a setting which shook me up for a couple of days.

Fast forward a few years. I am called a geek again.

This time I smile inwardly and take it as a genuine complement.

Somewhere between the two remarks a lot of things changed but fortunately the Geek within survived these years. Most of him remaining unchanged.

Somewhere between these two remarks, I was also fortunate enough to bump into dozens of other geeks who had not just survived, but thrived. Flourished. Made small and big dents in their universe and had told the world around them in a loud and clear tone that they were there to exist. On their own terms. Without changing. Their weirdness, their stupidity and insanity turning into their primary survival and growth technique.

As I observed these Geeks not just survive but actually thrive and create a ruckus in their world, one of the things that absolutely fascinated me was the mind of these geeks and how it usually works. There was a pattern emerging somewhere. There was something about their mind.

It was weird. Insane. Wired strangely. And yet, it was rather fascinating.

The more I observed these minds, the more convinced I became that there is a lot to learn from these minds.

We are not talking about the Pseudo-Geek mindset here. The kind whose resume you see floating in Job portals around the world. We are not talking about the kind who can calculate their monthly take-away to the precision of decimal points after tax deductions when they look at the offer letter for their new gig. That is the race of dangerous programmers who often cannot program or professionals who will cheat and rob you at the first opportunity that they get.

What we are talking about is the mind that figures out the intricacies of an encryption algorithm and implements it but cannot get itself to care about calculating his monthly takeaway or submitting his reimbursement forms on time.

We are talking about the mind that spends hours focusing on understanding the universe and everything in it from the viewpoint of a system and the personality that tries countless ways to tweak the rules, hack them, break them or work around them. We are talking about the kind that loves doing this.

Now, if you are a genuine Geek, chances are that you have not tried understanding your brain or your thought patterns, with even one tenth the effort that you put in your last project. Of course you might have gone in and grabbed a copy of Being Geek but then do you take a pause every now and then to dissect and analyze situations where you react differently than a perfectly normal-sane-practical-human-being? No? Hardly Ever? Thought so.

This series of posts is my attempt at doing that. It is my attempt at answering how a Geek thinks. How he works. How he reacts. How he sees things. It is an attempt at understanding the minds that have fascinated me ever since I first realized that I might not be as awesome as them, but I can connect to them and understand what makes them tick.

If you are one of them stay tuned for more on the topic as this series of posts unfolds itself. If you happen to work with Geeks or Nerds and were never quite able to figure them out these articles might help you get a deeper insight into the minds of Geeks and Nerds. Stay tuned for a series of posts where we attempt to understand the minds of the genuine geek that might be sitting right across your cubical or maybe even inside you.

posted on Sunday, September 26, 2010 8:30:00 PM UTC by Rajiv Popat  #    Comments [2]