Saturday, December 9, 2017

Book review: Hit Refresh

Can elephants dance? Satya Nadella, only the 3rd CEO in Microsoft’s history certainly thinks so, as he narrates the story of how he is trying to inject new life into Microsoft’s soul.

Once nearly synonymous with personal computing, Microsoft lost its mojo in the last decade as mobile phones literally gatecrashed into our lives and became the primary channel to access everything from music to internet. Many had written off Microsoft at this stage, but Satya narrates how he is breathing new life into the company, changing attitudes and bringing in new paradigms.

Microsoft, is changing, and making the world an even better place for us

The book starts on a personal note as the author traces his origins from childhood in the small towns of India to his entry into Microsoft headquarters in Seattle in the early 1990s and his eventual rise to the top in 2014. The author is modest in often acknowledging the role of luck in his success, pointing out how he always found himself at the right place at the right time. Son of a civil servant, the author narrates his fascination for cricket and early leadership lessons he took from the game. There are stories from the ups & downs in his personal life, like meeting the love of his life, and the trying circumstances surrounding the birth of the first child. 

This is a book about transformation, one that is taking place within him and also within the company. What was the situation at Microsoft when Satya took over? What did he inherit? And what is it that he wants to change? Trying to bring about culture change in such a big organization is not easy, it is a painfully slow grind but the author’s efforts have slowly started showing results. There is now a renewed growth mindset. Several key events and decisions, such as the launch of Windows 10, learnings from the Nokia acquisition and corporate dispute with Samsung etc. are described, giving an insight into the author’s personality and working style. The author shows how his seemingly unconventional decisions to partner arch-rivals such as Apple or Google have paid off. Surprisingly, even in this dispassionate world of coding and corporate strategy, Empathy keeps repeating itself.

And thankfully, the book doesn’t end here!

In the latter sections, the author takes a deep dive into technologies of the future, and how Microsoft is “trying to imagine a better future for everyone”. It is this that I liked the most. The author writes about three things Microsoft is betting on – Mixed Reality, Artificial Intelligence and Quantum Computing. What are they? What can they do? And where are we – the human race - heading? These are topics not just for the geeks. The author shows how these technologies will become essential tools in everything we do – from education to medicine, or help us fight cancer or global warming. Going beyond pure computing, technologies of the future will not only help us see, hear and analyze, but also “make us feel”. Does this mean machines will eventually ‘take over’ - as some fear? Or will they only augment human capabilities to make this world an even better place for all of us? It is this ‘Human vs. Machines’ OR ‘Human + Machines’ debate that is currently the rage the world over, and the author assures us there is nothing to fear from the future.

In recent times, the growth of technology has also thrown up difficult issues surrounding privacy, security and free speech. The author discusses delicate issues such as privacy of user data and government surveillance, the dilemma between privacy vs. security, individual freedom and liberty vs. public safety. The author rues that laws always lag technological changes, causing friction between Regulation and the Corporation. The role of companies in modern society is also discussed.

As they say, ultimately the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And that is what Microsoft is doing. 

Do give this book a read – it did change my perception of Microsoft, and our future - for the better.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Book review: How Google Works

What makes Google the company that it is? How can a company come to play so important a role in our lives in so little a time? “How Google Works” is a remarkable revelation of the secret sauce that the company is made of. Written by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg – two Google veterans – the book gives an inside view of how Google has created an operating model that is so successful. Schmidt was the Google CEO during its crucial formative years from 2001 to 2011 and is presently its Executive Chairman (of Alphabet). Jonathan was the Head of Products and oversaw Google’s blockbuster products Google Search, Google Ads, Gmail, Android, Chrome etc. during the period.

Google has created an operating model that is impossible to replicate

Written in simple language and lucid style, the book narrates how Google has turned conventional wisdom of corporate management upside down while delivering remarkable results. Issues such as corporate culture, strategy & planning, hiring practices, decision making and communications are explained in detail. Through stories and anecdotes, the book brings alive the company in front of the reader. What can you say about a company which believes ‘processes are bad’, you should ‘fail quickly if you want to’, ‘a top priority should be offices should be crowded’ or ‘messiness is usually a good sign’? The authors’ views on key corporate issues such as team sizes, compensation systems, meeting rules, rules for e-mails etc. will provide useful insights to modern day managers.

The roots for Google’s success are sowed right from when an employee is recruited. There is tremendous emphasis on recruiting the right person. As the authors say, interviewing is one of the most important skills that managers need to have. The urgency of the role isn’t sufficiently important to compromise for quality on hiring. Google wants candidates who have “comfort with ambiguity, bias to action and collaborative nature”. The section on interviewing is the one I liked the most.

It was also interesting to see Google’s emphasis on product excellence, user focus and on issues such as integrity. “Selling a thing to a customer she doesn’t need or doesn’t benefit from” is an integrity issue at Google and is ‘…against the basic interest of the company’. I am sure this will make many a sales and marketing managers squirm!

A key challenge for Google over the years has been to retain that start-up culture while it achieves scale. How does Google manage that? As the authors say at the beginning, “…the only way to succeed in business in the 21st century is to create great products, and the only way to do that is to attract smart creatives and put them in an environment where they can succeed at scale. …In a large company it becomes more and more difficult to create that environment…forces in a large company can actively conspire against those…who are trying to do something different”. It is these forces that Google has successfully conquered. 

For managers, HR professionals and all corporate watchers in general, this book is a ‘must read’.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Book review: The Inevitable

What comes to your mind someone says ‘technologies of the future’? Think blockchain, driverless cars, Artificial Intelligence, 3-D printing, drones…. I recently happened to read “the Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly, a futurist and the Founding Editor of the Wired magazine. The sub-title of this book said “Understanding the 12 technological forces that will shape our future”. This is a review of the same. A more concise review has been put up on the Amazon website.

When I picked up this book, I was expecting a deep dive – or at least a comprehensive introduction to technologies (not specifically the ones mentioned above but whatever else) the esteemed author thinks will come to shape our future. However, that was not to be.

The book revolves around what I may loosely call for want of a better term, the ‘Internet–AI–Cloud–Analytics complex’ and various things that are being achieved combining these. The “12 trends” that the author talks about are different manifestations of using the same: 

1. Becoming – a process of constantly changing, evolving, improving

2. Cognifying – How AI is being injected into everything around us 

3. Flowing – Everything is information, copied multiple times and flowing seamlessly around the world over the internet 

4. Screening – More and more screens will enter our lives – from digital books to VR goggles to living room and building walls etc. 

5. Accessing – Access will become more important than possession or ownership 

6. Sharing – Open source software, social media collaboration, aggregator sites, crowd funding etc.

7. Filtering – Since there is an abundance of everything (information age), it will all need to be filtered 

8. Remixing – Mixing multiple elements of different media to create new things, findability, rewindability etc. 

9. Interacting – VR, and one step beyond it to Augmented Reality (AR) 

10. Tracking – From intelligent devices tracking our body to “lifestreaming”, “lifelogging” etc. End of privacy. 

11. Questioning – the most unlikely things will happen and we will need to constantly keep questioning 

12. Beginning – the changes which are on our way are so mindboggling that we are beginning anew

These one liners do not do full justice to the depth to which the author has gone, but I wanted to give a glimpse of what really the author means by technology “trends” and how they differ from technologies or specific technology developments. 

Indeed what the Google-Facebook-Netflix-Amazons of the world are doing is quite remarkable. But beyond a point, the 12 trends appear to be a regurgitation of the same underlying technological capability. The book keeps coming back to the same names again and again, at times making it difficult to distinguish one chapter from another. 

To be sure, there is nothing wrong in what the author has written, but this is not what I was expecting. On the whole, a bit of a disappointment.